7 Quotes By Marcus Aurelius To Guide You Through Difficult Times
This advice from a great Roman emperor will help you to overcome your life challenges with wisdom and tranquility.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (A.D. 121–180) was emperor of Rome and the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”. His reign (A.D. 161–180) was marked by warfare, revolt, plague, and many other challenges.
The last decade of his life was particularly difficult with the revolt of the general Cassius, the death of his wife, and the realization that his son Commodus would not be the man Marcus had hoped.
But the challenges of this last decade also led to one of the greatest works of philosophy, spirituality, and ethics ever written: Meditations.
Meditations is not really a book, but more of a loose collection of Marcus’s personal writings. The fact that it was not meant for publication gives it an honest and intimate feel. It reads like a diary but is much deeper than a simple day-to-day account of his life. French scholar Pierre Hadot called the repetitive entries that make up the book “spiritual exercises”.
They range from one-sentence aphorisms to short essays, and they continually come back to similar questions on how to live a good life. It is truly remarkable that words written almost 2000 years ago can still provide raw and incisive wisdom in the 21st century. I guess at the end of the day, humans are humans.
As I read the book — the 2002 translation by Gregory Hays — I set aside my favorite quotes so that I could regularly reconnect with them and strive to live my best life.
I hope that the process of writing this will deepen my understanding of them, and I hope that sharing it with others with help to spread this profound and practical wisdom.
So here are 7 quotes (plus a few supplemental extras) from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that, if applied, will change your entire philosophy of life.
“Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it.”
The theme here is humility.
When we are busy and distracted by the external world, we often get caught up in things and forget the big picture. We become confident and cocky, and we think that our beliefs and goals are the most important thing.
And maybe they are, or at least it might be useful to sometimes give our life that much importance — knowing that everything you do matters by definition brings meaning into your life.
But we have to balance this with humility. One of my favorite aspects of Meditations is that Marcus regularly comes back to the same issues from different perspectives. As he tackles the big life questions, he will often reach very different conclusions. They might seem like contradictory conclusions, but I think the tension is deliberate and wise.
The tension between life principles is what keeps us balanced. At one point, Marcus even describes the right way to approach life as “unrestrained moderation”. It’s okay for life principles to compete against each other, and we will often have to make tradeoffs between them. But the tension keeps us honest and keeps us on a good path.
So at times, go ahead and think of yourself as the most important part of the universe. It will help you take things seriously and succeed. But this has to be balanced with humility towards how small a role you actually play.
“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.”
The theme here is to think deeply before you complain.
What is it exactly that you are complaining about? Are you really confident enough to complain about the nature and coherence of the universe?
Although Marcus draws on many philosophical traditions throughout the book, the most central one is Stoicism. And central to Stoicism is a faith and resignation in the overall goodness of the universe. Marcus and the Stoics referred to this universal order — the cosmic chain of cause and effect — with the term logos.
Logos (where the word “logic” and the suffix “logy” come from) was the ability to reason for individuals, and on the larger scale, it was the governing laws behind the organization of the universe. It could be synonymous with nature or God. I sometimes like to think of it as the force from Star Wars.
With this deterministic view of nature, anything that happens is advancing the larger design. And once you have faith in the overall goodness of the logos, you can accept anything that happens to you.
Because with this framing, bad things happen to you specifically because you can handle it. It was always going to happen to you, and it is part of the path you take to grow. Perhaps it even leads to your death, but that is just a more difficult test of your faith in the logos.
On the same page, he goes on to say this:
“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.”
I am uncomfortable with believing in a bearded man in the sky named God. I also don’t like the culturally popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. I think people tend to associate that phrase with a designer who is planning it all. But if you take it literally — everything literally happens for a reason because everything has a prior cause — then you are just being scientifically literate about cause and effect.
This is why Stoicism was essentially a religion for the upper-class Romans. It gave a framing for the large scale determinism of the universe while also giving practical advice on how to live.
When you frame your life like this, you will complain less — you will stop rejecting reality. This means that you will suffer less, and you will be able to better serve others.
That’s really what life is about: being the best you can be in order to serve others. That is something to be proud of before you die.
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
The theme here is separating reality from perception.
Our suffering does not come from the external world. It comes from our internal framing of the externals — the inner story we tell ourselves about things.
Stoic philosophy focuses a lot of attention on the discipline of perception. The goal is to maintain an objective approach to thinking — to see things in a dispassionate way without getting caught up in stories and loops of negative thinking. In modern terms, we could call this mindfulness or metacognition.
Stoics used the word phantasia to describe the information we take in with our senses. It refers to the initial appearance of things into our consciousness. It is the pure experience of something before we subject it to more thinking. It is the additional layers of thinking and judgment that further interpret experiences as “good” or “bad”.
You can still believe in good and evil, in fortunes and tragedy. But just know that those concepts require an additional interpretation of the phantasia. Marcus consistently reminds us not to confuse these two layers.
Besides the fact that your interpretation might be wrong, being able to detach like this will protect you from unnecessary suffering.
“And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed.”
The theme here is accepting death.
This particular quote comes from the end of Book 2, but the temporary nature of everything is a recurring theme throughout Meditations.
The way that the Stoics talk about change is very similar to the Buddhist teachings I’ve studied. When we look to nature, we understand that everything is constantly changing. But we often forget to apply this fact to ourselves and to our loved ones.
Following the above quote, Marcus elaborates about the nature of change:
“If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.”
So throughout Meditations, Marcus is continually reminding himself that everything is transitory. This is part of nature, part of the logos. Nothing could exist without change. It sucks, but it’s necessary. And rejecting it will only make you suffer more.
Later in Book Four, he says that “there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it”.
Things are born from change and things die from change. Another Stoic philosopher Epictetus more darkly described humans as “a little wisp of soul carrying a corpse”.
I’m not so sure that you need that darker interpretation, but it certainly gets the point across.
In the distraction of a busy life, we often ignore the fact of death. But Stoicism reminds us that death is simply logical and we should accept it. How else could it be?
“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.”
The theme here is strategic pessimism.
Why should we be pessimistic? The simple answer is that it’s a path to less stress.
Optimism is great, and having a positive attitude towards life will no doubt do you lots of good. But being too optimistic can leave you crushed when reality inevitably disappoints.
Optimism needs a competing value — something that creates a healthy tension — to balance it out. This is where the strategic use of pessimism can be helpful.
Expect things to go wrong. Expect people to screw you over. People will make your life difficult, and you don’t have to waste your time or mental energy being so shocked or worried about it. People are difficult because they’re on their own path — they are fighting their own battles and internal struggles.
In the passage after this quote, he continues with the Stoic interpretation of this inevitability:
“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.”
So the universe will seem to screw you over, and other people’s stupidity and malevolence will screw you over as well. But you can accept this and move past it.
From the zoomed out Stoic perspective, you are no longer getting caught up in the petty details of it all. You are aiming at something higher.
“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.”
The theme here is to be a good person for the right reasons.
Considering that Marcus was a famous emperor, there’s something particularly beautiful and cutting about his writings on fame, happiness, and death.
Why do we want to be a good person? To please other people? To get fame and attention from them?
The theme of constant change and death is again central here. When talking about the famous dead emperors that came before him, Marcus says this:
“Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.”
So caring about fame misses the point. It’s a bad motivation in life. You will die, as will all the people who might possibly remember and praise you. To this end, Marcus then asks himself a sort of “what is the point of it all” type of question, to which he has the following answer:
“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.”
It’s a reminder to connect with your deep motivations for being a good person. Aim at a meaningful life and don’t get distracted by fleeting pleasures and temporary fame. Have faith in the logos and the part you play in it.
Such advice coming from a Roman emperor is like a lottery winner telling you that money didn’t end up bringing them happiness and inner peace. We all know this fact, but we need to be reminded of it.
This is what these quotes from Mediations do for me; they constantly remind me to reconnect with the deep life principles that I know to be true but often neglect.
“Doctors keep their scalpels and other instruments handy, for emergencies. Keep your philosophy ready too — ready to understand heaven and earth.”
The theme here is to be prepared for the challenges of life.
I love this last quote. It’s the perfect packaging for the other quotes, and I hope it will serve as a nice conclusion to this collection.
Life will be difficult. How should we be prepared?
We should be prepared with our life philosophy. It is the framing we put on reality. Stoicism is not about being stoical. It’s not about blocking emotions. It’s about being strong enough and wise enough to frame things with love and tranquility.
Plan ahead so that you are ready — ready to endure the challenges of life and wise enough so that your character doesn’t become corrupted.
Overall, Meditations reminds me that while the external world has its challenges, I can always go within for comfort — to connect inward to the soul. Nowhere is more peaceful, true, and guiding than that.