The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Summary and Key Ideas

Picture the scene: you’re a prominent politician, preparing yourself to step up and address a large crowd. You need to remain calm throughout. All eyes are on you; you can’t unfairly judge or critique anyone. How do you best prepare for this? If you’re Marcus Aurelius then you do it by writing.

In today’s post, we’ll be providing a summary of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This is his notes on life, the senate, and how to be a good human. It’s a short book with lots of repetition. The goal of his writing isn’t to educate others, rather it’s done with a view of reminding himself of his beliefs. The title is apt — it’s literally his meditative practice.

As a result, the book doesn’t have a clear structure. Lots of ideas are introduced in an off-hand way that leaves them open to interpretation.  It’s a mixture of advice that is simultaneously relevant and far removed from the everyday person. Aurelius offers only the occasional summary of his viewpoint. When he does, it’s done for his own benefit rather than the readers. Meditations is one of those books that takes on a different meaning depending on the lens you view it through.

In keeping with the themes of the blog, we’re going to be extracting the information that lets us improve our lives. I’m going to gloss over the philosophical ideas related to accepting death, the cyclical nature of life, god, and the meaning of life. They’re not particularly relevant to the blog and Aurelius doesn’t explain them in sufficient detail for me to summarise his views accurately.

Summary of Key Ideas

The following is what I took from the book. Due to the ambiguous nature of his writing, you might draw very different conclusions from me.

Good or Bad Is a Choice

Marcus Aurelius is the poster boy for stoicism and it’s evident why in his writing. He believes that there are no inherently good or bad experiences.

Experiences happen. Then, we interpret them as good or bad.

He gives an example of his house burning down. Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is bad. His house burning down is a fact. What we choose to do with this fact isn’t decided. It’s only after we interpret it that a good or bad label is decided upon.

If we want, we can view a ‘bad’ experience as good. In regards to the bad interpretation, he says, “It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so.”

Be a Good Person

Aurelius dedicates a large portion of his meditations to discussing being a good person. Out of character for the rest of the book he gives us a summary; he offers six qualities we should try and embody in order to be a good person:

  • Upright – be honest and honorable in your dealings.
  • Modest – don’t boast about your accomplishments.
  • Straightforward – don’t resort to trickery and schemes to achieve your goals.
  • Sane – see the world as it truly is.
  • Cooperative – accept your place in the world with good nature.
  • Disinterested – don’t let base desires lead you, your mind should be in charge.

He claims that if we embrace these qualities, “without caring if others apply them to you or not — you’ll become a new person, living a new life.” Throughout the book, he repeatedly states that we should all aspire to this ideal.

Work With a Purpose

Aurelius makes clear everyone has work they should be doing in life. Whether it’s being the emperor, a soldier, or running a shop… Each role is equally important to the success of the whole; if anyone didn’t exist then humanity wouldn’t be as successful. He goes on to stress how important it is that we find and embrace that work.

“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.”

Aurelius believes that by doing the work we’re created for, we will live a fulfilled life. This is open to a few interpretations. He could be telling us we’re stuck in our current situation and have to accept our circumstances. I prefer to believe he’s saying we shouldn’t settle for work that we’re not truly passionate about. Do it to the best of your abilities, while actively bettering yourself.

Live in the Present

Throughout the Meditations, Aurelius reiterates that the present is all we have access to and that we should treasure it.

“Give yourself a gift: the present moment.”

This idea is woven through several of his views: the past and the future can’t hurt us, we should see the world as it truly is, and be present when working.

Empathy at All Times

As the Emperor, it’s evident that Aurelius must have had his share of challenging situations. Patience and empathy are two qualities that secured him a place in history. He dedicates a lot of the book to accepting the flaws of others and being understanding of their motivations.

“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.”

He goes on to say that once you understand their motivations, there are two possible outcomes.

The first is that they hold a similar worldview to you. In this case, you have no choice but to forgive them — you might have behaved similarly in their situation. You can’t judge someone for behaving as you would.

The second, they hold a world view wildly different from yours. Now you think they are misguided in how they view the world. Can you really judge them if they don’t have a clear understanding? Aurelius claims it’s more appropriate to feel sympathy. Let your anger go and if appropriate try and educate them on the matter.

This ties back into the earlier point about our interpretation of events shaping our perception. By looking at things through this empathetic lens it reshapes how we view the situation.

Final Thoughts

This wasn’t my favorite book. The lack of structure makes it feel quite chaotic at times. As I said earlier, Meditations is aptly named; it’s the practice Aurelius did to organize his thoughts.

If you’re interested in the man, then I highly recommend reading this. You’ll be given an insight into his mind. If you’re looking for practical takeaways then I don’t believe you need to go further than this article.

I’ve tried to summarize the lessons Marcus Aurelius was trying to embody. It’s my hope that you can leave this with a slightly different view of the world.

If nothing else, remember, your interpretation of events shapes your world.

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