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Meditations (Koinē Greek: Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, romanized: Ta eis he'auton, lit. 'things to one's self') is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from AD 161 to 180, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. It is possible that large portions of the work were written at Sirmium, where he spent much time planning military campaigns from 170 to 180. Some of it was written while he was positioned at Aquincum on campaign in Pannonia, because internal notes tell us that the first book was written when he was campaigning against the Quadi on the river Granova (modern-day Hron) and the second book was written at Carnuntum.
It is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius ever intended the writings to be published. The work has no official title, so "Meditations" is one of several titles commonly assigned to the collection. These writings take the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs.
The Meditations is divided into 12 books that chronicle different periods of Aurelius' life. Each book is not in chronological order and it was written for no one but himself. The style of writing that permeates the text is one that is simplified, straightforward, and perhaps reflecting Aurelius' Stoic perspective on the text.
A central theme to Meditations is the importance of analyzing one's judgment of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective:
You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.
Aurelius advocates finding one's place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as "Being a good man."
His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos. This allows one to rise above faulty perceptions of "good" and "bad"—things out of your control like fame and health are (unlike things in your control) irrelevant and neither good nor bad.
There is no certain mention of the Meditations until the early 10th century. The historian Herodian, writing in the mid-3rd century, makes mention of Marcus' literary legacy, saying "He was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us", a passage which may refer to the Meditations. The Historia Augusta's biography of Avidius Cassius, thought to have been written in the 4th century, records that before Marcus set out on the Marcomannic Wars, he was asked to publish his Precepts of Philosophy in case something should befall him, but he instead "for three days discussed the books of his Exhortations one after the other". A doubtful mention is made by the orator Themistius in about AD 364. In an address to the emperor Valens, On Brotherly Love, he says: "You do not need the exhortations (Greek: παραγγέλματα) of Marcus." Another possible reference is in the collection of Greek poems known as the Palatine Anthology, a work dating to the 10th century but containing much earlier material. The anthology contains an epigram dedicated to "the Book of Marcus". It has been proposed that this epigram was written by the Byzantine scholar Theophylact Simocatta in the 7th century.
The first direct mention of the work comes from Arethas of Caesarea (c. 860–935), a bishop who was a great collector of manuscripts. At some date before 907 he sent a volume of the Meditations to Demetrius, Archbishop of Heracleia, with a letter saying: "I have had for some time an old copy of the Emperor Marcus' most profitable book, so old indeed that it is altogether falling to pieces.… This I have had copied and am able to hand down to posterity in its new dress." Arethas also mentions the work in marginal notes (scholia) to books by Lucian and Dio Chrysostom where he refers to passages in the "Treatise to Himself" (Greek: τὰ εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἠθικά), and it was this title which the book bore in the manuscript from which the first printed edition was made in the 16th century. Arethas' own copy has now vanished, but it is thought to be the likely ancestor of the surviving manuscripts.
The next mention of the Meditations is in the Suda lexicon published in the late 10th century. The Suda calls the work "a directing (Greek: ἀγωγή) of his own life by Marcus the Emperor in twelve books," which is the first mention of a division of the work into twelve books. The Suda makes use of some thirty quotations taken from books I, III, IV, V, IX, and XI.
Around 1150, John Tzetzes, a grammarian of Constantinople, quotes passages from Books IV and V attributing them to Marcus. About 200 years later Nicephorus Callistus (c. 1295–1360) in his Ecclesiastical History writes that "Marcus Antoninus composed a book for the education of his son Marcus [i.e. Commodus], full of all worldly (Greek: κοσμικῆς) experience and instruction." The Meditations is thereafter quoted in many Greek compilations from the 14th to 16th centuries.
Wilhelm Xylander first translated the Meditations into Latin in 1558.
The present-day text is based almost entirely upon two manuscripts. One is the Codex Palatinus (P), also known as the Codex Toxitanus (T), first published in 1558/9 but now lost. The other manuscript is the Codex Vaticanus 1950 (A) in the Vatican Library.
The modern history of the Meditations dates from the issue of the first printed edition (editio princeps) by Wilhelm Xylander in 1558 or 1559. It was published at the instigation of Conrad Gesner and printed by his cousin Andreas Gesner at Zurich. The book was bound with a work by Marinus (Proclus vel De Felicitate, also a first edition). To the Meditations was added a Latin translation by Xylander who also included brief notes. Conrad Gesner stated in his dedicatory letter that he "received the books of Marcus from the gifted poet Michael Toxites from the library of Otto Heinrich, Prince Palatine", i.e. from the collection at Heidelberg University. The importance of this edition of the Meditations is that the manuscript from which it was printed is now lost, so that it is one of the two principal sources of all modern texts.
The Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1950 is contained in a codex which passed to the Vatican Library from the collection of Stefano Gradi in 1683. This is a 14th-century manuscript which survives in a very corrupt state, and about forty-two lines have dropped out by accidental omissions.
Other manuscripts are of little independent value for reconstructing the text. The main ones are the Codex Darmstadtinus 2773 (D) with 112 extracts from books I–IX, and the Codex Parisinus 319 (C) with 29 extracts from Books I–IV.
Marcus Aurelius has been lauded for his capacity "to write down what was in his heart just as it was, not obscured by any consciousness of the presence of listeners or any striving after effect." Gilbert Murray compares the work to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions and St. Augustine's Confessions. Though Murray criticizes Marcus for the "harshness and plainness of his literary style", he finds in his Meditations "as much intensity of feeling...as in most of the nobler modern books of religion, only [with] a sterner power controlling it." "People fail to understand Marcus," he writes, "not because of his lack of self-expression, but because it is hard for most men to breathe at that intense height of spiritual life, or, at least, to breathe soberly."
Rees (1992) calls the Meditations "unendingly moving and inspiring," but does not offer them up as works of original philosophy. Bertrand Russell found them contradictory and inconsistent, evidence of a "tired age" where "even real goods lose their savour." Using Marcus as an example of greater Stoic philosophy, he found the Stoic ethical philosophy to contain an element of "sour grapes." "We can't be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn't matter being unhappy." Both Russell and Rees find an element of Marcus' Stoic philosophy in the philosophical system of Immanuel Kant.
German philosopher Georg Hegel offers a critique of Stoicism that follows similar lines, albeit covering different trajectories. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel attacks the preoccupation with the inner self as a severing, fatalistic barrier to consciousness. A philosophy that reduces all states of harm or injustice to emotional states "could only appear on the scene in a time of universal fear and bondage." The Stoic refusal to meet the world is anathema to Life, a central value in Hegel's philosophical work: "whether on the throne or in chains, in the utter dependence of its individual existence, it aims to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from the bustle of existence." M. L. Clarke concurs in his historical work on philosophical ideas, The Roman Mind, where he states "[p]olitical liberty could hardly flourish after so many years of despotism and the indifference to public affairs which it bred. And philosophy fostered the same spirit."
In the Introduction to his 1964 translation of Meditations, the Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth discussed the profound impact of Stoicism on Christianity. Michael Grant called Marcus Aurelius "the noblest of all the men who, by sheer intelligence and force of character, have prized and achieved goodness for its own sake and not for any reward." Gregory Hays' translation of Meditations for The Modern Library made The Washington Post's bestseller list for two weeks in 2002.
The book has been described as a prototype of reflective practice by Seamus Mac Suibhne. Beatrice Webb, the labor movement leader who coined the term collective bargaining referred to Meditations as her “manual of devotion.” United States President Bill Clinton said that Meditations is his favorite book, and former United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis carried his own personal copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius throughout his deployments as a Marine Corps officer in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Wen Jiabao, the former Prime Minister of China, has read Meditations over 100 times.
Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say, "How unlucky that this should happen to me!" Not at all! Say instead, "How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen. The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint."— IV. 49, trans. Hicks
If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.— VIII. 47, trans. George Long
A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, "And why were such things made in the world?"— VIII. 50, trans. George Long
Put an end once for all to this discussion of what a good man should be, and be one.— X. 16,
Soon you'll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial.— V. 33, trans. Gregory Hays
Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.— III. 7, trans. Gregory Hays
Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on.— V. 9, trans. Gregory Hays
Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged. If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong.— IV. 7, trans. Méric Casaubon
Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, [...] Take away the complaint, [...] and the hurt is gone— IV. 7, trans. George Long
[...] As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes has no value for him.— III. 4, trans. Maxwell Staniforth
Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.— VI. 29, trans. Maxwell Staniforth
Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.— V. 8, trans. Gregory Hays
In your actions, don't procrastinate. In your conversations, don't confuse. In your thoughts, don't wander. In your soul, don't be passive or aggressive. In your life, don't be all about business.— VIII. 51
[Before making a decision] The first thing to do – don't get worked up. For everything happens according to the nature of all things, and in a short time you'll be nobody and nowhere even as the great emperors Hadrian and Augustus are now. The next thing to do – consider carefully the task at hand for what it is, while remembering that your purpose is to be a good human being. Get straight to doing what nature requires of you, and speak as you see most just and fitting – with kindness, modesty, and sincerity.— VIII. 5
What if someone despises me? Let me see to it. But I will see to it that I won't be found doing or saying anything contemptible. What if someone hates me? Let me see to that. But I will see to it that I'm kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where they went wrong. Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully.— XI. 13
Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.— IV. 17, trans. George Long
Of the life of man the duration is but a point.— II. 17, trans. C.R. Haines
A person who doesn't know what the universe is doesn't know who they are. A person who doesn't know their purpose in life doesn't know who they are or what the universe is. A person who doesn't know any of these things doesn't know why they are here. So what to make of people who seek or avoid the praise of those who have no knowledge of where or who they are?— VIII. 52
Often injustice lies in what you aren't doing, not only in what you are doing.— IX. 5
Whenever you suffer pain, keep in mind that it's nothing to be ashamed of and that it can't degrade your guiding intelligence, nor keep it from acting rationally and for the common good. And in most cases you should be helped by the saying of Epicurus, that pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination. Remember too that many common annoyances are pain in disguise, such as sleepiness, fever and loss of appetite. When they start to get you down, tell yourself you are giving in to pain.— VII. 64
Enough of this miserable, whining life. Stop monkeying around! Why are you troubled? What’s new here? What’s so confounding? The one responsible? Take a good look. Or just the matter itself? Then look at that. There’s nothing else to look at. And as far as the gods go, by now you could try being more straightforward and kind. It’s the same, whether you’ve examined these things for a hundred years, or only three.— IX. 37
Keep this thought handy when you feel a bit of rage coming on – it isn't manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real person doesn't give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance – unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.— XI 11.18.5b
Don't tell yourself anything more than what the initial impressions report. It's been reported to you that someone is speaking badly about you. This is the report – the report wasn't that you've been harmed. I see that my son is sick – but not that his life is at risk. So always stay within your first impressions, and don't add to them in your head – this way nothing can happen to you.— VIII. 49
Drama, combat, terror, numbness, and subservience – every day these things wipe out your sacred principles, whenever your mind entertains them uncritically or lets them slip in.— X. 9
I'm constantly amazed by how easily we love ourselves above all others, yet we put more stock in the opinions of others than in our own estimation of self....How much credence we give to the opinions our peers have of us and how little to our very own!— XII. 4
Does the light of a lamp shine and keep its glow until its fuel is spent? Why shouldn't your truth, justice, and self-control shine until you are extinguished?— XII. 15
Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone's lips: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are 'out of sight, out of mind.' In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.— IV. 33, trans. Scot and David Hicks
Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look at the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?— IV. 50, trans. George Long
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.— II. 1, trans. Gregory Hays
All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things; all being is one, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking persons possess) and all truth is one– if, as we believe, there can be but one path to perfection for beings that are alike in kind and reason.— VII. 9, trans. Maxwell Staniforth
Marcus Aurelius wrote the following about Severus (a person who is not clearly identifiable according to the footnote): Through him [...] I became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and of a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.— I. 14, trans. Maxwell Staniforth
The editio princeps (first print edition) of the original Greek was published by Conrad Gessner and his cousin Andreas in 1559. Both it and the accompanying Latin translation were produced by Wilhelm Xylander. His source was a manuscript from Heidelberg University, provided by Michael Toxites. By 1568, when Xylander completed his second edition, he no longer had access to the source and it has been lost ever since. The first English translation was published in 1634 by Meric Casaubon.
Some popular English translations include: