Wisdom of Aurelius: 30 Quotes to Live By

“Of all the properties which belong to honorable men, not one is so highly prized as that of character.” — Henry Clay

I am a great admirer of people with impeccable character and moral uprightness, or those who are at least striving to hone such qualities in themselves. Lawrence Kohlberg, well-known for his theory of moral development, postulated that only 25% of people ever reach the highest level of moral reasoning—Stage 6, in which the individual strives to uphold universal ethical principles that may supersede even society’s laws or his personal wishes. I do think that currently, there is a serious shortage of admirable moral fiber and depth of thought in humanity, but I believe I have no business further discussing that. I do not want to sound self-righteous. I cannot and do not claim to be morally superior to or of better character than any other.

Instead, I want to reflect on the words and thoughts of those whom I believe have reached exceptional ideals of character and moral quality. As Kohlberg suggested, we can advance in moral development by getting exposed to higher levels of moral reasoning. The first and probably the most common way we are exposed to higher-level moral reasoning is by discussing the moral dilemmas we encounter with a parent or another discerning adult. Another way, which I believe is currently underutilized, is by reading the written works of the greatest thinkers and the most honorable people who ever walked this Earth.

 …

“I felt that I have been elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people whose books I read and whose thoughts I selected for my Circle of Reading.” — Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy, who spent 17 years compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people” later published in his book Thoughts of Wise Men (1904), gathered his gems of wisdom from Epictetus, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, and The New Testament, to name a few. In this post, I want to put up a mini-compilation of wise words on “the Good Way of Life” as well, although only from one particular personality I highly admire in quality of character, ideal of living, and pureness of thought—Marcus Aurelius.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Maxwell Staniforth

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled from the year 161 to 180. Considered to be one of the most significant Stoic philosophers, Aurelius possessed a kind of wisdom, insight, and humility that I doubt anyone alive at this time can match. His book Meditations, a collection of personal writings written primarily as a source of his own self-improvement and guidance, is a go-to book for me every time I need some serious soul-cleansing and thought-distilling. Here are 30 of his most insightful and sensible thoughts on being master of oneself, dealing with others, work and purpose, humility, and the order of the universe:

ON being master of oneself:

One of the main themes of Aurelius’ writings is the master-reason, the ruling aspect of oneself that “can not only make itself what it will, but also impose the aspect of its choice on anything which it experiences.” To be overly simplistic about it, it’s kindof the ultimate “mind over matter” philosophy, advocating the development of self-control and reason to overcome destructive emotions and be free of passions (i.e. intuitive, passive reactions to external events).

1. “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. If the cause of the trouble lies in your own character, set about reforming your principles; who is there to hinder you?  If it is the failure to take some apparently sound course of action that is vexing you, then why not take it, instead of fretting? ‘Because there is an insuperable obstacle in the way.’ In that case, do not worry; the responsibility for inaction is not yours. ‘But life is not worth living with this thing undone.’ Why then, bid life a good-humored farewell; accepting the frustration gracefully, and dying like any other man whose actions have not been inhibited.”

2. “You have seen all that?* — now look at this. Your part is to be serene, to be simple. Is someone doing wrong? The wrong lies with himself. Has something befallen you? Good; then it was your portion of the universal lot, assigned to you when time began; a strand woven into your particular web, like all else that happens. Life, in a word, is short; then snatch your profit from the passing hour, by obedience to reason and just dealing. Unbend, but be temperate.”

*the unpleasant side of some recent encounter

3. “Of Pain. If it is past bearing, it makes an end of us; if it lasts, it can be borne. The mind, holding itself aloof from the body, retains its calm, and the master-reason remains unaffected. As for the parts injured by the pain, let them, if they can, declare their own grief.”

4. “Remember then to withdraw into the little field of self. Above all, never struggle or strain; but be master of yourself, and view life as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, and as a mortal. Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. Think of the countless changes in which you yourself have had a part, the whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it.”

5. “Let no emotions of the flesh, be they of pain or pleasure, affect the supreme and sovereign portion of the soul. See that it never becomes involved with them: it must limit itself to its own domain, and keep the feelings confined to their proper sphere. If (through the sympathy which permeates any unified organism) they do spread to the mind, there need be no attempt to resist the physical sensation; only, the master-reason must refrain from adding its own assumptions of their goodness or badness.”

6. “Live out your days in untroubled serenity, refusing to be coerced though the whole world deafen you with its demands, and though wild beasts rend piecemeal this poor envelope of clay. In all that, nothing can prevent the mind from possessing itself in peace, from correctly assessing the events around it, and from making prompt use of the material thus offered; so that judgment may say to the event, ‘This is what you are in essence, no matter how rumor paints you,’ and service may say to the opportunity, ‘You are what I was looking for.’ The occurrence of the moment is always good material for the employment of reason and brotherliness — in a word, for the practices proper to men or gods. For not a thing ever happens but has its special pertinence to god or man; it arrives as no novel intractable problem, but as an old and serviceable friend.”

· • ·

ON dealing with others:
Aurelius had a lot to say about how to deal with others, especially those whom we might consider difficult to deal with. What impresses me most is how he emphasizes the need to think kindly of others, even when they have offended us in some way. He advocated understanding the underlying motivations of men for acting the way they did, and brilliantly discussed the uselessness of indignation at others’ faults.

7. “Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them.”

8. “When those about you are venting their censure or malice upon you, or raising any other sort of injurious clamor, approach and penetrate into their souls, and see what manner of men they are. You will find little enough reason for all your painstaking efforts to win their good opinion. All the same, it still remains your duty to think kindly of them; for Nature has made them to be your friends, and even the gods themselves lend them every sort of help, by dreams and by oracles, to gain the ends on which their hearts are set.”

9. “Though men may hinder you from following the paths of reason, they can never succeed in deflecting you from sound action; but make sure that they are equally unsuccessful in destroying your charitable feelings towards them. You must defend both positions alike: your firmness in decision and action, and at the same time your gentleness to those who try to obstruct or otherwise molest you.  It would be as great a weakness to give way to your exasperation with them as it would be to abandon your course of action and be browbeaten into surrender. In either event the post of duty is deserted; in the one case through lack of courage, and in the other through alienation from men who are your natural brothers and friends.”

10. “No matter whom you meet, always begin by asking yourself, What are his views on the goodness, or badness of things? For then, if his beliefs about pleasure and pain and their causes, or about repute and disrepute, or life and death are of a certain type, I shall not be surprised or scandalized to find his actions in keeping with them; I shall tell myself that he has no choice.”

11. “That men of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice. In any case, remember that in a very little while both you and he will be dead, and your very name will quickly be forgotten.”

12. “How barbarous, to deny men the privilege of pursuing what they imagine to be their proper concerns and interests!  Yet, in a sense, this is just what you are doing when you allow your indignation to rise at their wrongdoing; for after all, they are only following their own apparent concerns and interests. You say they are mistaken? Why then, tell them so, and explain it to them, instead of being indignant.”

13. “Will anyone sneer at me? That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer.  Will he perhaps hate me? Again, his concern. Mine, to be in friendship and charity with all men, ready to show this very man himself where he is mistaken, and to do so without recrimination or ostentatious forbearance, but—if we may assume that his words were not mere cant—as frankly and generously as Phocion of old. That is the right spirit for a man to have within him; he should never be seen by the gods in the act of harboring a grudge or making a grievance of his sufferings. What ill can touch you if you follow the proper laws of your being and accept moment by moment whatever great Nature deems opportune, like a true man who is bent on furthering by any and every means the welfare of the world?”

14. “When another’s fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you. Do you, too, find your good in riches, pleasure, reputation, or such like? Think of this, and your anger will soon be forgotten in the reflection that he is only acting under pressure; what else could he do? Alternatively, if you are able, contrive his release from that pressure.”

15. “Do unsavoury armpits and bad breath make you angry? What good will it do you? Given the mouth and armpits the man has got, that condition is bound to produce those odors.  ‘After all, though, the fellow is endowed with reason, and he is perfectly able to understand what is offensive if he gives any thought to it.’ Well and good: but you yourself are also endowed with reason; so apply your reasonableness to move him to a like reasonableness; expound, admonish. If he pays attention, you will have worked a cure, and there will be no need for passion; leave that to actors and streetwalkers.”

16. “Try to move men by persuasion; yet act against their will if the principles of justice so direct. But if someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue. Your attempt was always subject to reservations, remember; you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply at making the attempt itself. In this you succeeded; and with that, the object of your existence is attained.”

17. “Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming – in a word, anything that distracts you from fidelity to the Ruler within you – means a loss of opportunity for some other task. See then that the flow of your thoughts is kept free from idle or random fancies, particularly those of an inquisitive or uncharitable nature. A man should habituate himself to such a way of thinking that if suddenly asked, ‘What is in your mind at this minute?’ he could respond frankly and without hesitation; thus proving that all his thoughts were simple and kindly, as becomes a social being with no taste for the pleasures of sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments that he would blush to acknowledge in himself. Such a man, determined here and now to aspire to the heights, is indeed a priest and minister of the gods; for he is making full use of that indwelling power which can keep a man unsullied by pleasures, proof against pain, untouched by insult, and impervious to evil. He is a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery; he is imbued through and through with uprightness, welcoming whole-heartedly whatever falls to his lot and rarely asking himself what others may be saying or doing or thinking except when the public interest requires it. He confines his operations to his own concerns, having his attentions fixed on his own particular thread of the universal web; seeing to it that his actions are honourable, and convinced that what befalls him must be for the best – for his own directing fate is itself under a higher direction. He does not forget the brotherhood of all rational beings, nor that a concern for every man is proper to humanity; and he knows that it is not the world’s opinions he should follow, but only those of men whose lives confessedly accord with Nature. As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes, has no value for him.”

· • ·

ON work and purpose:

18. “Everything— a horse, a vine— is created for some duty. This is nothing to wonder at: even the sun-god himself will tell you, ‘There is a work that I am here to do,’ and so will all the other sky-dwellers. For what task, then, were you yourself created? For pleasure? Can such a thought be tolerated?”

19. “Work yourself hard, but not as if you were being made a victim, and not with any desire for sympathy or admiration. Desire one thing alone: that your actions or inactions alike should be worthy of a reasoning citizen.”

20. “There is a type of person who, if he renders you a service, has no hesitation in claiming the credit for it. Another, though not prepared to go so far as that, will nevertheless secretly regard you as in his debt and be fully conscious of what he has done. But there is also the man who, one might almost say, has no consciousness at all of what he has done, like the vine which produces a cluster of grapes and then, having yielded its rightful fruit, looks for no more thanks than a horse that has run his race, a hound that has tracked his quarry, or a bee that has hived her honey. Like them, the man who has done one good action does not cry it aloud, but passes straight on to a second, as the vine passes on to the bearing of another summer’s grapes.”

21. “Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.”

22. “Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.”

· • ·

ON humility:
One of the qualities I find most admirable in Aurelius is how he despises a hankering for praise and recognition. Having been Emperor, certainly he must have received much praise and distinction in his lifetime and it would’ve been easier to be full of himself. But in his Meditations, he made sure to remind himself how he should not act self-important, how empty praise is, and “how puny the arena of human fame” is.

23. “Think of the totality of all Being, and what a mite of it is yours; think of all Time, and the brief fleeting instant of it that is allotted to yourself; think of Destiny, and how puny a part of it you are.”

24. “How small a fraction of all the measureless infinity of time is allotted to each one of us; an instant, and it vanishes into eternity. How puny, too, is your portion of all the world’s substance; how insignificant your share of all the world’s soul; on how minute a speck of the whole earth do you creep. As you ponder these things, make up your mind that nothing is of any import save to do what your own nature directs, and to bear what the world’s Nature sends you.”

25. “When you have done a good action, and another has had the benefit of it, why crave for yet more in addition—applause for your kindness, or some favor in return—as the foolish do?”

26. “The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him every one will himself soon be dead also, and in course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched. Furthermore, even supposing that those who remember you were never to die at all, nor their memories to die either, yet what is that to you? Clearly, in your grave, nothing; and even in your lifetime, what is the good of praise unless maybe to subserve some lesser design? Surely, then, you are making an inopportune rejection of what Nature has given you today, if all your mind is set on what men will say of you tomorrow.”

27. “In a brief while now you will be ashes or bare bones; a name, or perhaps not even a name—though even a name is no more than empty sound and reiteration. All that men set their hearts on in this life is vanity, corruption, and trash; men are like scuffing puppies, or quarrelsome children who are all smiles one moment and in tears the next…Take heart, and wait for the end, be it extinction or translation. And what, think you, is all that is needful until that hour come? Why, what else but to revere and bless the gods; to do good to men; to bear and forbear; and to remember that whatsoever lies outside the bounds of this poor flesh and breath is none of yours, nor in your power.”

· • ·

 

ON the order of the universe:
Aurelius believed in the order of the universe, in the existence of a higher, directing Power, and of things happening exactly as they should (so there’s no need to pull our hair out when things aren’t going our way).

28. “Either the world is a mere hotch-potch of random cohesions and dispersions, or else it is a unity of order and providence. If the former, why wish to survive in such a purposeless and chaotic confusion; why care about anything, save the manner of the ultimate return to dust; why trouble my head at all; since, do what I will, dispersion must overtake me sooner or  later? But if the contrary be true, then I do reverence, I stand firmly, and I put my trust in the directing Power.”

29. “Whatever happens, happens rightly. Watch closely, and you will find this true. In the succession of events there is not mere sequence alone, but an order that is just and right, as from the hand of one who dispenses to all their due. Keep up your watch, then, as you have begun, and let goodness accompany your every action—goodness, that is, in the proper sense of the word. In all your operations pay heed to this.”

30. “Put on the shining face of simplicity and self-respect, and of indifference to everything outside the realms of virtue or vice. Love mankind. Walk in God’s ways. ‘All under law,’ quoth the sage; and what though his saying had reference to atoms alone? For us, it suffices to remember that all things are indeed under law. Three words, but enough.”

• ♠ •

Aurelius’ ideas on just conduct, sensible dealing with others, and devotion to being master of oneself are indeed models of exemplary character. With that, I leave you with another of his most remarkable lines:

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be.

Be one.” 

 …

PLUS 10 more of my favorite Aurelius quotes, because why not: 😀

  1. “Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thought as, for example: Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.”
  2. “The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are, remembering that it is your duty to be a good man. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just—though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity.”
  3. “Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, nay, their whole thought, is focused.”
  4. “The gods, though they live for ever, feel no resentment at having to put up eternally with the generations of men and their misdeeds; nay more, they even show every possible care and concern for them. Are you, then, whose abiding is but for a moment, to lose patience — you who are yourself one of the culprits?”
  5. “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in as much as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.”
  6. “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.”
  7. “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. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”
  8. “Always get to know the characters of those whose approval you wish to earn, and the nature of their guiding principles. Look into the sources of their opinions and their motives, and then you will not blame any of their involuntary offences, or feel the want of their approbation.”
  9. “When men are inhuman, take care not to feel towards them as they do towards other humans.”
  10. “How hollow and insincere it sounds when someone says, ‘I am determined to be perfectly straightforward with you.’ Why, man, what is all this? The thing needs no prologue; it will declare itself. It should be written on your forehead, it should echo in the tones of your voice, it should shine out in a moment from your eyes, just as a single glance from the beloved tells all to the lover. Sincerity and goodness ought to have their own unmistakable odor, so that one who encounters this becomes straightway aware of it despite himself. A candor affected is a dagger concealed. The feigned friendship of the wolf is the most contemptible of all, and to be shunned beyond everything. A man who is truly good and sincere and well-meaning will show it by his looks, and no one can fail to see it.”

 

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