The key to understanding the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius—a seemingly disorganized collection of personal notes that were never intended for publication—is to first understand the difference between how philosophy was conceived in ancient times as opposed to now.

Today, philosophy is—along with most other subjects—a highly specialized academic discipline, consisting largely of the formal analysis of language and the theoretical explication of texts. In sharp contrast, philosophy as practiced in ancient Greece, as well as in Marcus’s time, was a way of life. Philosophy was not simply studied; rather, it was practiced in a way that informed every aspect of one’s life, thoughts, and actions. As Pierre Hadot wrote in his classic The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

“For the ancients in general, but particularly for the Stoics and for Marcus Aurelius, philosophy was, above all, a way of life. This is why the Meditations strive, by means of an ever-renewed effort, to describe this way of life and to sketch the model that one must have constantly in view: that of the ideal good man. Ordinary people are content to think in any old way, to act haphazardly, and to undergo begrudgingly whatever befalls them. The good man, however, will try, insofar as he is able, to act justly in the service of other people, to accept serenely the events which do not depend on him, and to think with rectitude and veracity.”

The Meditations are therefore not a random assortment of notes or journal entries; they are philosophical exercises used to ensure adherence to explicit Stoic principles, and knowing what those foundational principles are is the key to getting the most out of the text. 

Pierre Hadot, having spent more than twenty years studying, translating, and analyzing the life and thought of Marcus Aurelius, has identified those core Stoic principles—what he refers to as Marcus’s three rules of life—around which Marcus would dedicate his life, and around which the true value of the Meditations emerges. 

But before we get to the rules, a quick note on Epictetus. 

The influence of Epictetus

While Marcus was influenced by many philosophers and philosophical texts, his primary influence was the teachings of the philosopher Epictetus, transmitted to him by his favorite teacher Junius Rusticus. In book 1 of Meditations, Marcus expresses gratitude “to have been able to read the notes taken at the courses of Epictetus, which [Junius] lent to me from his own library.” Marcus extensively quotes Epictetus throughout the Meditations, and his teachings permeate the text.

We won’t dive too deeply into the philosophy of Epictetus, but the reader should know that Meditations is largely a record of Marcus’s attempt to live according to the three rules of life that were originally developed by Epictetus (who was himself influenced by the orthodox Stoicism of Zeno and Chryssipus). 

Also keep in mind that it was Epictetus, in the Discourses, who wrote: “These are the things [the distinction between what one can and cannot control] which philosophers should meditate on, which they should write daily, in which they should exercise themselves.” Epictetus repeats this suggestion to make a daily habit of writing down these principles throughout the Discourses. The product of this advice is, perhaps, Meditations itself. 

Let’s now examine the three rules of life that Marcus thought were of the utmost importance to living a good life, and that were worth reflecting on and writing about daily.  

Rule 1: Recognize that true freedom lies in judgment alone (Discipline of Assent)

Stoicism is, above all, a mixture of both theory and practice. The Stoics understood that ”theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind,” using Immanuel Kant’s phrasing. The Meditations, therefore, can be thought of as both a recapitulation of theory and a framework for daily practice, a method to not only internalize Stoic principles, but to also establish the practical habits of a virtuous life.  

This is why Marcus repeats, on several occasions—for his own benefit and as the foundation for daily practice—the fundamental Stoic principle that asserts that our only source of complete freedom (and therefore happiness) lies in our judgments. As Marcus wrote:

“If you suffer pain because of some external cause, what troubles you is not the thing but your decision about it, and this it is in your power to wipe out at once. But if what pains you is something in your own disposition, who prevents you from correcting your judgement?” (Meditations, Book VIII, 47)

Moral improvement for the Stoic is therefore centered on correcting judgments—as these are entirely within one’s command—and resisting the tendency to be controlled by external forces not within one’s direct control. While we tend to hand over our freedom to external events—allowing people and circumstances to dictate our thoughts and actions—the Stoic seeks to recapture their freedom by learning to distinguish events from the value-judgments they impose upon them. As Marcus wrote:

“Do not say more to yourself than the first impressions report. You have been told that someone speaks evil of you. This is what you have been told; you have not been told that you are injured.” (Meditations, VIII, 49)

Similarly, Epictetus wrote, in the Discourses:

“He was sent to jail. What happened? He was sent to jail. But “He is unhappy” is added by oneself.”

We can apply this Stoic wisdom on a daily basis by learning to distinguish events from judgements. Using Marcus’s example, say that you’ve been told that someone “speaks evil of you.” What is your initial reaction? More than likely, you will react with anger and seek to confront or otherwise take revenge on the person in question (or else ruminate on the matter obsessively). But Marcus is reminding you to not give away your freedom to the actions of others, and to not allow others to dictate what you think, how you act, and how you are to spend your time.

Marcus would say that if someone has spoken evil of you, then this is a bare fact about the world. You cannot control this fact, erase it, deny it, or prevent it. But the assertion that you have, as a result of this, been injured, is entirely dependent on your judgment of the fact. As Marcus wrote, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” Of course, you cannot always control your initial emotional reactions, but you do not have to give them your assent. You can feel anger without accepting it or acting on it. 

As Marcus would put it, external events and the actions of others cannot penetrate or reach your soul (or “inner citadel”) unless you allow them to. This is the true source of your freedom. You can decide whether to be undisturbed by events, or not. You can decide to act according to rational moral principles—the only true virtue—or not. You can decide to desire exactly that which befalls you, or not. And therefore you can decide whether to be happy, or not. External events cannot be fully controlled, but your judgments can. It is only in your judgments, then, that ethical self-improvement must be sought. 

It is also worth pointing out that this mindset is unaffected by any particular metaphysical picture of the universe. As the philosopher John Sellars wrote in Lessons in Stoicism:

“Whether one believes in a benevolent deity, pantheistic order or atomic chaos, it remains entirely up to us whether we choose to see an event as a disaster or an opportunity.”

Rule 2: Adopt the view from above (Discipline of Desire)

Contemplating the cosmic insignificance of human life at the largest of scales is a favorite technique of Marcus’s. This helps to drive home the distinction between events and judgments, and how our judgments are often distorted by our tendency to forget the smallness of our concerns. Additionally, by focusing on the present moment, and living each moment as if it were our last, we can avoid the most common sources of anxiety and fear. As Marcus wrote:

“Don’t trouble yourself by representing to yourself the totality of life in advance. Don’t try to go over in your mind all the painful hardships, in all their varying intensity and number, which might possibly happen. Rather, when each of them occurs, ask yourself: “What is there about this situation that is unbearable or intolerable?”, for you will be ashamed if you answer affirmatively. In addition, remind yourself that it is not the future, nor the past, which weighs upon you, but always the present; and this present will seem smaller to you if you circumscribe it by defining and isolating it, and if you make your reflective faculty ashamed at the fact that it cannot put up with such a small, isolated little matter.” (VIII, 36)

Elsewhere, Marcus writes:

“Asia and Europe are corners in the Universe; every sea, a drop in the Universe; Mount Athos, a clod of earth in the Universe; every instant of time, a pin-prick of eternity. All things are petty, easily changed, vanishing away.” (VI, 36)

We can reconsider these scales in modern terms: the earth (one of approximately 400 billion planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone), for example, with a diameter of just under 8,000 miles, is utterly dwarfed by the estimated diameter of the observable universe at 93 billion light-years across (one light-year is 5.88 trillion miles). Likewise, a human lifetime, averaging roughly 80 years, is but a “pin-prick” in time compared to the 14-billion-year history of the universe. 

In the face of this immensity, how important can our earthly concerns really be? To the Stoic, we are all simply parts of a much larger and grander picture, destined to die and be long forgotten while the universe remains. Even the lasting fame of Marcus Aurelius will wither away—at least with the eventual heat death of the universe—but surely long far before that. 

While this may seem pessimistic, it really is not. In addition to providing the proper humbling perspective (where we realize that the universe was not created specifically for us), it also elevates the status of our rational faculties. As Epictetus put it in the Discourses:

“Don’t you know how tiny a part you are, compared to the All? With regard to your body, that is; for with regard to your reason, you are not worse nor lesser than the gods. The size of reason cannot be measured by length or height, but by the value of judgments.”

We may be a small and insignificant part of space and time, but our reason and judgments are not measured according to physical scale. In this sense, we can transcend the smallness of our physical and material existence by working on developing the only goods that have any real significance for us: virtue and proper conduct. 

Rule 3: Act in the service of the common good (Discipline of Action)

The Discipline of Assent tells us to separate events from judgments and to optimize our judgments alone. The Discipline of Desire instructs us to “love our fate” and accept whatever happens to us, focusing only on our moral development. The final rule, the Discipline of Action, informs us to align our actions and goals in the service of all humankind and to use adversity as a means of moral growth. 

By adopting the “view from above,” the Stoic can see more clearly the unity of humankind rather than its arbitrary divisions. Humanity is united in its shared reason, and, just as we are each part of universal Nature, we are all individually part of one human community. We must therefore spend our limited amount of time on earth in service to this larger community.

As Marcus wrote:

“In the first place: nothing at random, and nothing that is not related to some goal. Second: do not relate your actions to anything other than a goal which may serve the human community” (XII, 20)

The Stoic learns to extend their natural drive of self-preservation—along with the desire to flourish morally—to all humankind, and discovers that life’s greatest joy is derived from providing services to others and to the community at large. 

This is not merely a preference but a necessary revelation; if external events are indifferent, and virtue is the only good, and further that all humans share the same rational faculties, then what is good for oneself must also be good for all humanity. Since we are all part of the human community—and not above it or superior to it—our duty must be to act in service to the community, in whatever large or small way we are destined to contribute, as fate would have it. This idea was captured perfectly by Spinoza, who, while not technically a Stoic, was obviously influenced by Stoicism. Spinoza wrote:

“Men who are good by reason—i.e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them—desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.”

It must be said, however, that since the happiness and well-being of others is beyond one’s direct control, the Stoic must pursue philanthropy with what they termed a “reserve clause,” which essentially means “fate permitting” or “God willing.” 

This allows the Stoic to pursue worthwhile endeavors for the good of the community while at the same time accepting failure with equanimity. In fact, failure, along with any dispreferred events more generally, are simply opportunities to practice additional virtues, such as acceptance, or to establish new goals in pursuit of individual moral improvement or the collective benefit of the community. 

As Seneca pointed out, if everything always goes well for us, how can we develop the virtues of patience, resilience, moderation, and courage? This is a key insight: if virtue is the only good, and virtue can only be developed in the face of adversity, then we should welcome adversity into our lives as a means of moral growth. So, while the Stoic serenely accepts any outcome as it is, they also simultaneously turn all adversity into training exercises for the improvement of themselves and others. 

We’ve now come full circle. The Stoic learns to separate events from judgments and discovers that virtue is the only good (Discipline of Assent). Taking the view from above, the Stoic realizes that what is good for oneself is good for the community, and so pursues goals in the service of others (Discipline of Action). If those actions fail, the Stoic accepts the outcome as necessary and beyond one’s control (Discipline of Desire), but then establishes new goals in the service of the community or as training exercises for moral development (Discipline of Action). 

Further reading

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