by Marcus Aurelius, circa 170 CE

Review is copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2017.06.09

Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.

As a side note, I really do not like the presentation of this book’s cover, with words wrapping onto the next lines and random letters being larger or smaller than other letters. I almost didn’t buy it because of this.

Full Title: Meditations
Author: Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome
Year: circa 170 CE (mine was a 2005 re-release of a 1964 translation)
Translation: by Maxwell Staniforth, 1964
Genre: Philosophy
Publisher: Penguin Books — Great Ideas
ISBN 978-0-014-303627-2 (paperback)
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Wikipedia Page
Author’s Wikipedia Page


Written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Meditations reads like a “notes to self” list, which apparently it was. Originally penned in Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the time, the same language as the New Testament), many translations have arisen over the years; I had really no way to know which would be best — I chose the 1964 translation by Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth after perusing quite a few reviews of various translations.

Flavored heavily by his Stoic philosophy, Aurelius’ most-known work can be seen as a series of platitudes or maxims. Very often, he employs logic/reason to prove a point, though just as often he makes unsubstantiated assertions about the universe, gods, nature, and society.

I was pointed toward this book by several atheist acquaintances online.

What I Liked Least About It

Throughout the book, every time I thought I had a grasp on Aurelius’ beliefs, he would throw out something else. I maintained the impression that he simultaneously believed several contradictory things. (It’s possible that some of this is due to the translation, of course.) For example, he makes frequent references to “the gods” — the first mention of which is to say he owes the gods for his good family and teachers, and other acquaintances and influences. In Book Two, he asserts that “Gods, however, do exist, and do concern themselves with the world of men”. In other places, he phrases it as an unknown: “if there be gods...” Then he also refers to Nature as an overriding, all-controlling force, using various terminology including “the World-Nature”, “Nature”, “Providence”, “the creative principle of the universe”, and others, all as part of the “divine economy” (different translations handle these words differently, but I can only depend on the copy in my hand). But in yet other spots, he refers to a singular, capital-g “God”. It is never made clear who he thinks these entities are, or how they are related to one another.

Another, minor complaint, is something I expected from Stoicism: the belief that a truly reasoned person cannot be affected by physical events. Aurelius mentions this repeatedly, that if you practice philosophy correctly, and think about things just right, then what happens to your body cannot possibly affect your mind. I’m certain that he was sincere in this belief, but I’m just as certain that he was wrong. And even if it’s possible to divorce your mind from the rest of your body, it’s probably not a good idea to do so — when it comes to mental health.

What I Liked Most About It

First, I think this is the first book of philosophy I’ve read from this general time period and region of the world — with the obvious exception of the New Testament. It was eye-opening, to some extent, regarding the types of beliefs and thoughts that flowed through the mind of the most powerful person alive at the time.

Quite a few of the maxims and platitudes are worth remembering. I plan to go back through the book with a pen for underlining (or a highlighter), to mark some of these passages. Here are just a few, for examples:
“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”

— pg. 32

“Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet: when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty.”

— pg. 34

“Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.”

— pg. 79


In all, it was a slow slog to read this book; there is no story, no continuous thread of logic or tapestry of thought — and no conclusion. But overall, it was worth it for the thought-provoking nuggets that it contained.

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