This article is about the writings by Marcus Aurelius. For other uses, see Meditation (disambiguation).

First page of the 1792 English translation by Robert Graves
Author Marcus Aurelius
Original title Unknown, probably untitled
Country Roman Empire
Language Koine Greek
Published 170 to 180 AD

Meditations (Medieval Greek: Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν Ta eis heauton, literally "[that which is] to himself") is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek[1] as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement.[2] 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 and 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.

Structure and themes

Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations in Greek at his base in Sirmium in modern-day Serbia and also while positioned at Aquincum on campaign in Pannonia in modern-day Hungary.

The Meditations is divided into 12 books that chronicle different periods of Marcus's 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 Marcus's Stoic perspective on the text. Depending on the English translation, Marcus's style is not viewed as anything regal or belonging to royalty, but rather a man among other men which allows the reader to relate to his wisdom.

A central theme to Meditations is the importance of analyzing one's judgment of self and others and the development of a cosmic perspective. As he said "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".[3] He 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".[4]

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".

Reception and influence

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 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".[5]

D.A. Rees calls the Meditations "unendingly moving and inspiring", but does not offer them up as works of original philosophy.[6] 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 their 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".[7] Both Russell and Rees find an element of Marcus' Stoic philosophy in the philosophical system of Immanuel Kant.[6][7]

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, its aim is 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."

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".[8]

Gregory Hays' translation of Meditations for The Modern Library made the bestseller list for two weeks in 2002.[9]

The book has been described as a prototype of reflective practice by Seamus Mac Suibhne.[10]

Author John Steinbeck makes several direct allusions to Meditations in his magnum opus East of Eden.[11]

United States President Bill Clinton said that Meditations is his favorite book.[12]. United States nominee for Secretary of Defense James Mattis carried his own personal copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius throughout his deployments.[13]

"Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered"




The editio princeps of the book (the first ever printed version) was published in 1558 by Wilhelm Xylander at Heidelberg University from a now lost manuscript, from which the Greek title also originates.[15]

Some popular English translations include:

See also


  1. "Close imitation of Attic was not required because Marcus Aurelius wrote in a philosophical context without thought of publication. Galen's many writings in what he calls 'the common dialect' are another excellent example of non-atticizing but highly educated Greek." Simon Swain, (1996), Hellenism and Empire, page 29. Oxford University Press.
  2. Iain King suggests the books may also have been written for mental stimulation, as Aurelius was removed from the cultural and intellectual life of Rome for the first time in his life. Source: Thinker At War: Marcus Aurelius published August 2014, accessed November 2014.
  3. John Sellars, "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" Marcus Aurelius October 23rd 2011
  4. John Roberts, "Oxford Reference Online" Aurelius,Marcus October 23rd 2011
  5. Murray, Gilbert (2002) [1912]. Five Stages of Greek Religion (3rd ed.). Dover Publications. pp. 168–9. ISBN 0-486-42500-2.
  6. 1 2 D.A. Rees, Introduction pp. xvii. In Farquhrson, A. S. L. (1992) [1944]. Meditations. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-41271-9.
  7. 1 2 Russell, Bertrand (2004) [1946]. History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge. pp. 248–56. ISBN 0-415-32505-6.
  8. Grant, Michael (1993) [1968]. The Climax of Rome: The Final Achievements of the Ancient World, AD 161–337. London: Weidenfeld. p. 139. ISBN 0-297-81391-9.
  9. The Washington Post Bestseller List June 9th, 2002
  10. Mac Suibhne, S. (2009). "'Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you': Marcus Aurelius, reflective practitioner". Reflective Practice. 10 (4): 429–436. doi:10.1080/14623940903138266.
  11. "East of Eden".
  12. "An American reader: Bill Clinton".
  13. "Fiasco". Armed Forces Journal.
  14. "MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations - Loeb Classical Library". Loeb Classical Library.
  15. Marcus Aurelius, De seipso, seu vita sua, libri 12 ed. and trans. by Xylander. Zurich: Andreas Gessner, 1558.

External links

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