Marcus Aurelius Meditations (Book 1)

One of the main reasons why love Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is for their intimacy.

Having never been intended for publication; they contain none of the formalities of a stereotypical treatise of lecture.

In essence, they are just collected passages from Marcus' diary; showing him as he tries to balance his responsibilities as an Emperor with an inner devotion to pursuing a philosophical life.

But, for me, the personal nature of his writings makes his philosophy even more impactful. Because we are gaining a real insight into who he was, and how he really felt. Not just some character he was trying to portray.

And, though there are many passages from the meditations that deserve deeper discussion - one of the most profound lessons i personally find in them actually comes in the very first book - where Marcus writes a list of all the people he has known, and the ways in which they have influenced him.

Of course, as modern readers, most of the names he mentions will be unfamiliar to us.

But still, it is remarkable to witness Marcus' humility.

He makes no attempt to portray himself as "self made" or "divinely inspired".

Instead, he pays homage to Family Members, Teachers, Peers, and Mentors. Expressing gratitude for each opportunity gained, and each lesson he has learnt from them.

It is a lesson in how important it is for all of us to remain humble. Never forgetting that what we have now, is inextricably linked to those who have come before us.

For me, it brings to mind Native American philosophy too - which gives a lot of priority to "honouring our ancestors" - and seeing ourselves as part of a whole.


But, now, let us move on to see some of the things that Marcus is actually thankful for.

What is he actually placing value on?

After all, when Marcus was writing his Meditations, he was one of the most powerful men in the world.

The leader of the Roman Empire. He would have been wealthy - famous - and feared.

In such a position that, were he to tell people he were descended from the Gods (Like Alexander the Great) - no-one would have argued with him.

So, is he writing here to express gratitude for the power he has inherited?

Or the wealth? Or the Fame?

Is he grateful for the wars he has won? Or the enemies he has vanquished? Or the lands his armies have conquered?


Not at all.

Let us look briefly at the opening excerpt.


" From my grandfather Verus: Decency and a mild temper.

From what they say and i remember about my father: integrity and manliness.

From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrongdoing and even the thought of it; and also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich."


Decency . . .Integrity . . . Piety.

From his three closest relatives - these are the qualities that the Roman emperor values most.

And this is just the start.

In the subsequent passages - goes on to name things like:

To have had good teachers at home (and to realize that education is the sort of thing one should spend lavishly on)

To work with the hands

To have an affinity to philosophy

To be readily recalled to conciliation, with those who have taken or given offence, just as soon as they are willing to turn back


Then, later, he says:


From Sextus: A kindly disposition; . . . and the concept of life lived in accordance with nature

From Catulus: not to spurn a friend's criticism, even if it may be an unreasonable complaint . . . [and to] speak of one's teachers with wholehearted gratitude

From Severus: Love of family, love of truth, love of justice . . . affinity for philosophy *


Again, look at these words.

Kindly disposition. Love of Family. Affinity for Philosophy.

Here is a man who knows what it is like to have everything one could ever wish for; with every excuse to portray himself as the hardest . . . the strongest . . . the baddest.

Yet it is still these simpler virtues which matter to him the most.

Things which any of us can work to cultivate too - no matter our position in life.


Finally, in the last passages of Book 1, Marcus gives thanks to "the Gods". For having:

good grandparents

good parents

good teachers

and a good family.

He also reiterates his point of living a life in accordance with nature

And mentions how, even in times of anger, he is thankful never to have taken this too far, to the point of regret.

But, we do not have to actually believe in "the Gods" ourselves, to appreciate what he means by this.

Of course, each of us does have a certain amount of control over our lives. And the choices we make have a direct impact on shaping our future.

But, at the same time, so much of what we have inherited is beyond our control.

We do not choose the parents we are born to - or the generation in which we exist in. And there will always be parts of this life that we must accept as being out of our hands; whether we believe they are the work of God, Fate, or chance.

So, once again, this final passage is a reminder to appreciate that we exist as part of a whole.

We are inheritors of the past - as well as being creators of the future.

And, though we each have a certain amount of individual control in this life;

It is also as Marcus says in the final lines of this book:

All these things need the help of the gods, and fortunes favour




(Note: All quotes in this article are abridged, and sourced from the Penguin Classics Translation by Martin Hammond. (No Affiliation) )

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