The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is not an ordinary philosophy book: it wasn’t written for people to read it. It’s a collection of the Roman Emperor’s life-changing philosophical thoughts and reflections, who was facing huge challenges during his reign. He wrote down his thoughts to gain more clarity, resilience, and patience. His words teach the readers of the Meditations many practical tools to reach their goals, overcome obstacles, be kind to others, and more. Here, we will explain the meanings behind 5 quotes found in the Meditations.
1. “The Obstacle is the Way”
“Our actions may be impeded… but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”¹
Most people do not think about obstacles in this way. Obstacles are usually scary and anxiety-inducing. This leads many to get discouraged whenever they encounter a bump in the road.
The meaning behind this quote by Marcus Aurelius is that there are ways to turn obstacles into opportunities. He emphasizes that obstacles can help us see how to proceed next; they force us to keep digging. Obstacles can lead people to discover and develop talents they might not have known they had. It makes sense, since obstacles push people to find their inner strengths and, in the process of overcoming difficulties, become better human beings.
It is possible to develop courage, resilience, and self-confidence. How? By acknowledging obstacles and working with them instead of resisting them, people start to develop the habit of jumping directly into the unknown. They find more strength since they have gotten used to tackling challenges with a positive attitude. No obstacle scares them anymore. In addition, by seeing themselves deal with adversity and learning from it, they begin to believe in themselves and their capabilities.
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Facing obstacles in their journey can mean that we are on the right path. If everything was easy, what’s the point of pursuing it anyway? It’s this inner joy found while overcoming obstacles that contributes to a truly purposeful life.
2. “The Stars Can Help”
“To watch the course of the stars as if you revolved with them. To keep constantly in mind how the elements alter into one another. Thoughts like this wash off the mud of life below.”²
Marcus Aurelius is explaining a practice that can help in reducing stress and anxiety. It is known that many astronauts who go into space and look at planet Earth from their space shuttle are amazed by this planet on which humanity lives. They also are dazzled by the beauty and vastness of the universe. They start seeing all wars and conflicts as pointless.
This is exactly what Marcus Aurelius describes in the quote above. He encourages individuals to imagine themselves running with the stars while appreciating the universe with astonishment. Whenever they feel upset by a certain person or problem, they can start picturing themselves as astronauts. This exercise can help to reduce negative thoughts and encourages a sense of humility. It leads to recognizing that humans and their problems represent only an extremely small portion of this immense universe.
The Stoic Emperor is also reminding the reader that change is the natural condition of the world. He explains that nothing lasts forever; everything will transform and change. Remembering how seasons change, for example, or how the storm will sooner or later be replaced by the bright sun with its warm rays is comforting. Anyone can benefit from keeping in mind that the adversity that they’re facing will end; there’s no doubt about the inevitability of change.
3. “Do Less, But Better”
“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way.
Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?
But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.”³
Marcus Aurelius is explaining many different things in this passage. He’s discussing how a person can gain tranquility, and, in his opinion, that is by doing the essential things only. Minimalism has many positive effects on people’s lives. Marcus Aurelius was right.
In the 21st century, many individuals find themselves bombarded with information from different sources, including their smartphones, the news, social media, the radio, their coworkers, and more. They are also pushed by their peers to keep working and to always do more. For example, journalists are expected to write many articles per day. Bosses want their employees to keep working overtime. Individuals are advised to stay productive even during their leisure time by famous productivity gurus online. This contributes to people feeling guilty if they aren’t working all the time. No wonder why tranquility is becoming rarer nowadays!
Marcus says that most of what people say and do is unnecessary. He is saying that people are wasting time with activities that could be replaced with much more beneficial options. For example, these days people are always asked to give their opinion on matters that they aren’t experts in or to keep talking when they’d be better off taking action in their own lives.
Marcus Aurelius recommends only doing the things that the individual himself finds to be a priority. And this can be done by questioning the importance of any task that one is about to do.
An important aspect of this passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is that this selectivity in choosing what to say and do will not only render people’s lives more tranquil, but it’ll also make them do their tasks in a better way. This is because they’ll gain more time to focus on these specific tasks.
Lastly, Marcus advises the individual to eliminate unnecessary assumptions. For example, this could include prioritizing the judgments people make about people they’ve never met.
4. “Be Good”
“To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it too, if you simply recognize that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.”⁴
This passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations emphasizes the importance of forgiveness and understanding. Marcus first explains that it is deeply human to feel sympathy for people who have wronged others. He also tells the reader that understanding others is just as important. For example, if an employee is somewhat rude to a customer, it could be because they had an exceedingly long and stressful day, or because they are burdened by personal problems. Here, the customer should try to feel sympathy and remain patient. They should forgive the worker as well because it’s the right thing to do. Maybe this employee did not pay attention to the way they addressed the customer because of how tired they are.
Marcus Aurelius also talks about death in this passage. He is saying that both these people will die soon; so what’s the point of getting angry or upset? Some people might see this as pessimistic, but Marcus Aurelius is simply highlighting something true here.
The Stoic emperor focuses on another idea in this passage. He says that any individual has always the ability to choose how she’s going to respond to any circumstance. No one can take that away from her. This is one of the most powerful teachings of the Stoics which insist on the power to stay in control by consciously choosing our thoughts and actions, without being swayed by irrational ones.
5. “All is For the Best”
“He does only what is his to do and considers constantly what the world has in store for him—doing his best and trusting that all is for the best. For we carry our fate with us—and it carries us.⁵
Marcus Aurelius talks about doing the tasks required of the person while staying curious and maintaining a positive attitude toward life. The individual is encouraged to care only about what will bring him to the achievement of his goals, one step at a time. He should not care about what others are doing unless people ask for his help.
Curiosity is at the heart of this quote. When the individual stays curious and constantly strives to discover the world around him, he will start to notice the opportunities around him and use them to his advantage.
Marcus recommends people to expect good things to happen. But even if adversity comes too, people should accept this adversity and embrace it; it’ll be clear later that even the most difficult conditions will have added something positive to people’s life. This is what Marcus meant when he said that the wise person should trust that all is for the best.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius contain much more wisdom from the Stoic Emperor, who believed in the importance of daily reflection and writing down philosophical teachings and principles to keep them in his mind and use them to face challenges during his reign.
¹ Meditations, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 5.20
² Meditations, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 7.47
³ Meditations, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 4.24
⁴ Meditations, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 7.22
⁵ Meditations, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 3.4