At one time, I kept a Roman Emperor’s ‘Meditations’ on the corner of my desk at work so I had ready access to a consoling or restraining line from a wise and gentle counsellor. Flicking through the pages at random for a minute or two could always give me the boost I needed.
Marcus Aurelius ruled in a time of currency devaluation, war, flooding, starvation, infectious diseases, plots and coup attempts. His wife gave birth to at least 13 children. Only five were alive when he died. His words are directed to himself: we overhear them and can interpret them as we choose. I have always liked the idea that he lived at the extreme end of a bell curve – he understood glory, sadness, responsibility, politics and power and held on to his humanity under pressure that dwarfs anything I hope to understand or experience. Here are some of my favourite Marcus Aurelius quotes:
1. You will not easily find a man coming to grief through indifference to the working of another’s soul; but for those who pay no heed to the motions of their own, unhappiness is their sure reward.
2. Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good: ever dig, and it will ever flow.
3. Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.
4. Today I have got myself out of all my perplexities; or rather, I have got my perplexities out of myself, for they were not without, but within; they lay in my own outlook.
5. Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.
6. Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore believe it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for a man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.
7. Do not be distressed, do not despond or give up in despair, if now and again practice falls short of precept. Return to the attack after each failure and be thankful if on the whole, you can acquit yourself in the majority of cases as a man should.
8. If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.
9. You are not compelled to form any opinion at all about this matter before you, not to disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you.
10. When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.
11. When anyone offends you, let your first thought be, Under what conception of good and ill was this committed? Once you know that, astonishment and anger will give place to pity.
12. To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.
13. Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul; and observe how all things are submitted to the single perceptivity of this one whole, all are moved by its single impulse and all play their part in the causation of every event that happens. Remark the intricacy of the skein, the complexity of the web.
14. When you would have a cordial for your spirits, think of the good qualities of your friends; this one’s capacity for self-effacement, another’s generosity, and so forth.
15. …[the eye of discretion will] see the mature charm that belongs to men and women in old age as well as the seductive bloom that is youth’s. Things of this sort will not appeal to everyone; he alone who has cultivated a real intimacy with nature and her works will be struck by them.
16. Ever run the short way; and the short way is the way of nature, with perfect soundness in each word and deed as the goal.
17. Observe how all things are continually being born of change; teach yourself to see that Nature’s highest happiness lies in changing things that are and forming new things after their kind. Whatever is, is in some sense the seed of what is to emerge from it.
18. The sun is seen to pour itself down and expend itself in all directions, yet it is never exhausted… [watch a sunbeam] as it streams into a darkened room through a narrow chink. It prolongs itself forward in a straight line, until it is held up by encountering one solid body which blocks the passage to the air beyond and then it remains at rest there, without slipping off or falling away. The emission, and diffusion, of thought should be the counterpart of this: not exhausting, but simply extending itself; not dashing violently or furiously against the obstacles it encounters, nor yet falling away in despair; but holding its ground and lighting up that upon which it rests.
19. Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs?
20. Erasing all fancies, keep on saying to yourself, ‘It lies in my own hands to ensure that no viciousness, cupidity, or turmoil of any kind finds a home in this soul of mine; it lies with me to perceive all things in their true light, and to deal with each of them as it merits.’ Remember this authority, which is nature’s gift to you.
I hope amongst these quotes you’ll find one you love too. There are several translations available, but this version is my favourite:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Penguin edition, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.