Book Notes: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Reading Time: 16 minutes

Book Cover: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius  (Gregory Hays (Translator))

PublisherRandom House 

ISBN-13 : 978-0812968255


[A note: I first read Meditations in February 2014, and made private notes. I’m making these private notes public in May 2021.]


Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. He was also a major Stoic philosopher, primarily due to Meditations. Interestingly, Marcus Aurelius likely never meant Meditations to be made public. Every evening, he would sit down and reflect on his day by writing in his private diary. These private notes were collected into Meditations, and were intended as private notes to himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, and a wise ruler at a time when Marcus Aurelius was essentially the most powerful man in the western world.


Meditations is a collection of spiritual, ethical, and philosophical reflections. It is grounded in Stoicism, a practical philosophy that originated from ancient Greece and Rome in the early parts of the 3rd century, BC. Stoicism encourages us to gain self-mastery over our thoughts and actions in an unpredictable world. It teaches that while we cannot exert control over external events, we are able, to a certain extent, to exert control over our own mind, and choose how we respond to these events. Meditations offers practical advice on how to live virtuously, wisely and ethically.

I recommend Meditations for everyone but especially for those who seek peace, meaning, and to gain the ability to take more effective action in a volatile world. Overall this is a great book, and its concepts have helped me to make valuable changes in my own life: to seek to cull irrelevant distractions (like cable news, for instance), to focus on what’s meaningful to me and within my circle of influence, and to remember that life is short and shouldn’t be wasted.

3 Main Ideas

  1. Pay little attention to things that are beyond your control and focus on your own will and perception, things that are within your locus of control. You must not let yourself be distracted by meaningless or inessential things that are out of your control. Rather, focus on those things that you can control, let go of everything else, and turn every obstacle or challenge into an opportunity to improve.
  2. Our minds give us the power of perception. We have the ability to choose how we respond to events or circumstances, and we always have the opportunity to practice virtue and integrity. If we practice this frequently, over time, we will be able to control our thoughts and actions, and reduce the impact of bad circumstances or misfortune on us. We can choose to respond positively to misfortune, obstacles, or challenges and realize they may contain valuable lessons or opportunities for growth and self development.
  3. Life is short. Once you realize that the present is all you have, you need to make sure that whatever you do is full of meaning and purpose. It is important to keep the fact of our own death in mind. Not to be morbid, or fearful, but to remind ourselves that our time on earth is temporary, and we need to find meaning, purpose, and value within our limited time. Understanding that life is short can provide us with some of the most significant forms of meaning and understanding. We all have some sort of purpose. And, one of the highest ideals is to add value and serve others; to make valuable contributions to others in the short expanse of our lives. We must stay true to that purpose, not waste time, and do what we were designed to do.

5 Key Takeaways

  1. Meditations forms the basis for both a philosophical set of reflections and practical set of actions. It is the private diary of the most powerful man in the world, struggling to balance unlimited power with remaining true to his inner virtue, character, and ideals. How does one act as a good person, in the face of almost unlimited power? Similarly, how should regular people act in the face of obstacles, challenges, and misfortune? Meditations is meant to inspire reflection and thought, and to form the foundation for the ways in which one should think or behave. It is intended to provide inspiration and direction in the ways in which one should conduct oneself and respond to external events.
  2. You have power over your mind – not external events. While you cannot control external or outside events, you do retain the power of perception. You can choose how you react to those external events. Bad things may happen to you, but you have the power to choose your response to those things.
  3. Having power over your mind also enables us to be mindful. Mindfulness requires that we give our full attention to whatever we are doing. We should always strive to be fully present in our current action or activity, and try not to be distracted by irrelevant external or internal factors. You should treat important things as if they were the last thing you would ever do in your life, and treat those things with the seriousness, focus, and sense of purpose that they deserve.
  4. While life is short, death is not something to be feared. Dying is part of the cycle of life, same as being born. Rather, death should should serve as an reminder of the shortness of life, and as an inspiration to work to achieve the purpose for which you were designed.
  5. The obstacle is the way. No one’s life is smooth, or easy, or always perfect. We will all face obstacles, hardships, difficulties, and challenges during our lives. But these very challenges are what give texture and value to a life. It is your response to hardship and difficulty that determine what kind of person you become. Without challenges, how will you know your true strength? So you must understand that the obstacles and difficulties in your life have made you the person you have become. Be grateful for those obstacles. The obstacle becomes the path. The obstacle is the way.

Top Quotes

  • “Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.”
  • “If you seek tranquillity, 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 tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
  • “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
  • “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
  • “The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  • “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

Key Concepts

On Self-Control

  • “Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.”
  • “To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”
  • “Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.”

On Focus

  • “Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”
  • “Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.”
  • “Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in circles, ‘elving into the things that lie beneath’ and conducting investigations into the souls of the people around them, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and worship it sincerely.”
  • “Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”
  • “Don’t give the small things more time than they deserve.”
  • “If you seek tranquillity, 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 tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
  • “You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious.”

On Having Realistic Expectations

  • “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. And so none of them can hurt me.”
  • “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.” Anyone who understands the world will laugh at you, just as a carpenter would if you seemed shocked at finding sawdust in his workshop, or a shoemaker at scraps of leather left over from work.”
  • “So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us. Now you anticipate the child’s emergence from its mother’s womb; that’s how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment.”

On the Shortness of Time/Mortality

  • “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
  • “You cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing.”
  • “You can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”
  • “Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow ‘or the day after.’ Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.”
  • “At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
  • “So we need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be gone before we get there.”
  • “Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.”
  • “The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”
  • “Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.”

On Purpose

  • “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.”
  • “So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize? I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for.”
  • “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? —But we have to sleep sometime.… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that— as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.”
  • “Whereas humans were made to help others. And when we do help others—or help them to do something—we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.”

On Virtue and Integrity

  • “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.”
  • “Those to do with good and evil. That nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite.”
  • “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.”

On Happiness

  • “If you do [a] 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 fulfilment 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.”
  • “You don’t need much to live happily. And just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, obeying God.”
  • “The happiness of those who want to be popular depends on others; the happiness of those who seek pleasure fluctuates with moods outside their control; but the happiness of the wise grows out of their own free acts.”

On Seeking Better Inputs

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

On Anxiety

  • “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”

On Anger

  • “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. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.”

On Perception

  • “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.”
  • “See not what your enemy sees and hopes that you will, but what’s really there.”
  • “What happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad.”
  • “Every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see.”
  • “Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.”
  • “It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.”
  • “External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
  • “The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only one person is harmed by it—and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to.”

On Fortune/Misfortune

  • “It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
  • “True good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.”

On Obstacles or Challenges

  • “The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  • “But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself – another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.”

On Control

  • “If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. Why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them—or the world, which is their primary concern?”
  • “Whatever happens to you is for the good of the world.”
  • “If [an outcome] is in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way.”
  • “So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. The one that keeps saying, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” is like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush.”

On the Qualities of Others

  • “When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”

On Seeking Help

  • “Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
  • “We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature.”

On Empathy

  • “When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?”
  • “Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.”

On Gratitude

  • “Treat what you don’t have as non-existent. 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.”

On Fortitude and Resilience

  • “Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable … then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.”
  • “Remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”

On Self-Awareness

  • “If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it?”
  • “Don’t ever forget these things: The nature of the world. My nature. How I relate to the world. What proportion of it I make up. That you are part of nature, and no one can prevent you from speaking and acting in harmony with it, always.”

On Effort

  • “Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished.”

On Rationality

  • “Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.”
  • “Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility to treat this person as he should be treated to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.”
  • “Characteristics of the rational soul: Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants.”
  • “Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance— now, at this very moment— of all external events. That’s all you need.”

On Inner Peace

  • “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.”
  • “Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.”

On Caring Less About What Others Think

  • “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”
  • “Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own mis-perceptions, What People Will Say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (let the affected part take care of those). And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within … if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly … then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.”

On Taking Responsibility

  • “Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage.”
  • “If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.”

Action Items

  • Reframe obstacles as opportunities. Nearly every problem or challenge has the potential to be a valuable learning or teaching tool or opportunity for growth. How you react to problems dictates your character. Similarly, reframing problems as opportunities enables you to persist, to not give up on things at the slightest hint of trouble, but to persevere. The obstacle is the way.
  • Practice gratitude. Reflect frequently about for the gift of life, the people around you, and the things that you have or are able to experience. Think about what a miracle it is to be able to experience such gifts
  • Seek to understand others more fully. Listen to understand and be fully present in your listening. In your life, you might be the star of your own show, but other people have their own lives in which they are the star. You must try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand things from their perspective. Others might have opinions or values that differ from yours, and in order to live harmoniously, you need to try to see things from their perspective. You might not come to an agreement, but you will at least understand each other better.
  • Be mindful of distractions that might sideline you from what is important and meaningful to you. If you’re about to embark on an activity, think, “is this (action) necessary?” to the important things you need to accomplish.
  • Be mindful of the thoughts, ideas, or actions that you allow into your life. What you let in is what you become. If you let in bad ideas or junk information, that is what you will think about, and what you will become. Try to absorb only the highest quality of thoughts, ideas, and inputs. Your inputs become your outputs.

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