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2019-06-20

The following is a collection of quotes recorded during the reading of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays.

Introduction (Gregory Hays):

“My impression that my house has just burned down is simply that–an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression by my powers of hypolepsis. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it.”

“It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”

Marcus Aurelius

“We cannot step twice into the same river. Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.”

“No one can keep you from living in harmony with yourself.”

“The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.”

“This, in particular: his willingness to yield the floor to experts–in oratory, law, psychology, whatever–and to support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfill his potential.”

“The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds–games, building projects, distributions of money and so on–because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.”

“No surplus words or unnecessary actions.”

“If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment… If you can embrace this without fear or expectation–can find fulfillment in what you’re doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)–then your life will be happy. No one can prevent that.”

“An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.”

“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”

“Choose not to be harmed–and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed–and you haven’t been.”

“Keep looking closely like that, and embody it in your actions: goodness–what defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do.”

“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is this the right thing to do?)”

“What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?”

“Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does–or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it?”

“‘If you seek tranquility, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential–what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’ But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.”

“And then you might see what the life of the good man is like–someone content with what nature assigns him, and satisfied with being just and kind himself.”

“Love the discipline you know, and let it support you. Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life–no one’s master and no one’s slave.”

“‘Then what should we work for?’ Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.”

“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. ‘Then where is harm to be found?’ In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine.”

“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned–to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.”

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’ ‘But it’s nicer here…’ So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”

“Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer–beyond excuses like ‘can’t’? And yet you still settle for less.”

“Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it–still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return.”

“So there are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all. The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of well-being in what directs the world–of its well-being, its fulfillment, of its very existence, even. Because the whole is damaged if you cut away anything–anything at all–from its continuity and its coherence. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying.”

“Nothing can happen to me that isn’t natural. I can keep from doing anything that God and my own spirit don’t approve. No one can force me to.”

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

“Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure.”

“In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.”

“When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I. And if it is, anger is not the answer.”

“So other people can hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.”

“Honor and revere the gods, treat human being as they deserve, be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood–and nothing else is under your control.”

“I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.”

“Nature is pliable, obedient. And the logos that governs it has no reason to do evil. It knows no evil, does none, and causes harm to nothing. It dictates all beginnings and all endings.”

“Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: ‘to do what needs doing.'”

“The best revenge is to not be like that.”

“I do what is mine to do; the rest doesn’t disturb me. The rest is inanimate, or has no logos, or it wanders at random and has lost the road.”

“Death. The end of sense-perception, of being controlled by our emotions, of mental activity, of enslavement to our bodies.”

“Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.”

“Does the sun try to do the rain’s work?”

“Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.”

“No one can keep you from living as your nature requires. Nothing can happen to you that is not required by Nature.”

“Let it happen, if it wants, to whatever it can happen to. And what’s affected can complain about it if it wants. It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.”

“The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates itself. Is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. Knows no obstructions, except those from within.”

“Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them–that it would upset you to lose them.”

“Self-contraction: the mind’s requirements are satisfied by doing what we should, and by the calm it brings us.”

“No one can obstruct the operations of the mind. Nothing can get at them–not fire or steel, not tyrants, not abuse–nothing. As long as it’s ‘a sphere … in perfect stillness.'”

“Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable.”

“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more. Don’t demand to know ‘why such things exist.'”

“A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained. To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring. How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.”

“What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.”

“Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie.”

“When we cease from activity, or follow a thought to its conclusion, it’s a kind of death. And it doesn’t harm us. Think about your life: childhood, boyhood, youth, old age. Every transformation a kind of dying. Was that so terrible?”

“Indifference to external events. And a commitment to justice in your own acts.”

“To decompose is to be recomposed.”

“The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members. Another useful point to bear in mind: What qualities has nature given us to counter that defect? As an antidote to unkindness it gave us kindness. And other qualities to balance other flaws.”

“As you move forward in the logos, people will stand in your way. They can’t keep you from doing what’s healthy; don’t let them stop you from putting up with them either. Take care on both counts. Not just sound judgments, solid actions–tolerance as well, for those who try to obstruct us or give us trouble in other ways. Because anger, too, is weakness, as much as breaking down and giving up the struggle.”

“It’s the pursuit of these things, and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out; you are the one seeking them. Suspend judgment about them. And at once they will lie still, and you will be freed from fleeing and pursuing.”

“As long as you do what’s proper to your nature, and accept what the world’s nature has in store–as long as you work for others’ good, by any and all means–what is there that can harm you?”

“When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being–and a man.”

“There is no common benchmark for all the things that people think are good–except for a few, the ones that affect us all. So the goal should be a common one–a civic one. If you direct all your energies toward that, your actions will be consistent. And so will you.”

“At festivals the Spartans put their guests’ seats in the shade, but sat themselves down anywhere.”

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

“When someone seems to have injured you: ‘But how can I be sure?’ And in any case, keep in mind:

  • He’s already been tried and convicted–by himself. (Like scratching your own eyes out.)
  • To expect a bad person not to harm others is like expecting fig trees not to secrete juice, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh–the inevitable not to happen.”

“What else could they do–with that sort of character? If you’re still angry, then get to work on that.”

“If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say it.”

“To undertake nothing:

  1. at random or without a purpose;
  2. for any reason but the common good.”

“That before long you’ll be no one, and nowhere. Like all the things you see now. All the people now living. Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.”

“It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with misperception at will, like rounding the point. Serenity, total calm, safe anchorage.”

“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred–what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in–why is that so terrible?”

“Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: ‘But I’ve only gotten through three acts …!’ Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace–the same grace shown to you.”

Recommended books

  • Hellenistic Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1974)
  • F.H. Sandbach, The Stoics (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975)
  • J. Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1969)