Little did Marcus Aurelius know but his personal diary would last the test of time, thousands of years in fact. It was never intended to be read by anyone other than himself and we can only imagine his horror if he were to know it has been translated hundreds of times over the centuries since his death. However, I think it would make him pleased to know it has helped so many people from presidents to a countless number of regular Joes. His book Meditations is now one of the most-read books across the planet.
There’s a good reason his writings have been passed down through the generations and that’s because the ancient stoic philosopher’s moral codes are timeless and forever relevant.
You could even argue they are especially relevant now, in the 21st century, a time of instant gratification and a culture that forever wants more and more without seeing the value in stillness and reflection and simply living in the moment.
So, whether you live a stoic way of life or you’re new to it, here are 53 Marcus Aurelius quotes on life that I think can change yours for the better. After each quote, I’ll give my own opinion on what I think each quote means so we can explore them a little further.
1. “The best answer to anger is silence.”
When you’re in a state of anger, it’s hard to say the right thing or do the right thing. Reacting in such a way leaves you open to making things worse. If someone else is angry, it’s usually not a good idea to make things worse and instead diffuse the situation by being calm. Harder said than done but an important point nonetheless.
2. “The more we value things outside of our control, the less control we have.”
There are things within our control and then there are many things outside of our control. The more we value the things we cannot influence, the less control we have over our emotions and instead we become helplessly envious, depressed and anxious. This is not helpful in any way. Focus on what you can control.
3. “The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”
Another important Marcus Aurelius quotes on life that speaks for itself. In the same way, ‘you are what you eat’, you also become the thoughts that you think. It’s a powerful quote that I believe to be unquestionably true. If you think negative thoughts for long enough, it’s hard to escape them. If you think positively and progressively, you can change your life for the better over time. You feel lighter at your core and you begin to see opportunities.
4. “Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present – thoughtfully, justly”.
Life was especially short not to mention brutal for Roman Emperors and Marcus knew the value of the present moment well. He understood you could be gone in an instant and lived a life of appreciating each moment whilst trying to make the most of it. Be thoughtful, and mindful of the present moment because it is all you really have.
5. “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears”.
Perhaps you have been wounded by a friend or a romantic relationship that ended. Naturally, we tend to see these situations as negative and often traumatic. However, Marcus believes that with every injury there is an opportunity. Whilst you may be hurting, what good can come from your situation? You may not be able to see it now but there’s usually good that comes from everything.
6. “How soon will time cover all things and how many has it covered already.”
Every day there is a big news story but within a week everyone has forgotten about it before they are onto the next one. Time covers everything, what people care about today is ancient history tomorrow. How many lives have been lived? How many people have been forgotten to time? You should live your life for the present because again, it’s all you have. You will one day become lost in time like the millions before you.
7. “He who follows reason in all things is both tranquil and active at the same time, and also cheerful and collected.”
If you follow reason, not opinion or emotion, you’re likely to live a more balanced life and therefore make better decisions in day-to-day life.
8. “A rock is thrown in the air. It loses nothing by coming down, gained nothing by going up.”
No matter what your status in life is, you are still you. It’s why many people are left feeling depressed once they get rich and famous because they’re no happier. They are still the same person with the same problems but with more money and with more eyeballs on them. You are you, all that matters is how you conduct yourself.
9. “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
This is probably one of the best Marcus Aurelius quotes on life, it’s short and sweet but it sums up most of the stoic ideas in a simple way. You cannot control the way others behave or think. The only thing you truly have control over is how you respond and your own discipline. No person or object truly belongs to you, only your own attitude does. Everyone is going through something whether they look as if they are or not so a certain level of tolerance and patience is always needed.
This is an incredibly important thing to remember and once fully understood can change your life.
10. “Don’t be overheard complaining, even to yourself.”
Complaining, whilst not attractive, also never makes a situation better. Marcus believes that seeing things as happening for you, not to you, is the right way to face a situation. What do you get from complaining? you feel worse when you do it and it also depresses those who listen to you.
11. “How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life.”
Marcus believes that everything that happens in life happens for you, not to you. I think he’s trying to say that you should be surprised by nothing, for anything is possible in a life that is so complicated with so many variables all working at the same time. Everything has come from nature and you yourself are nature.
12. “You’re subject to sorrow, fear, jealousy, anger and inconsistency. That’s the real reason you should admit that you are not wise.”
The Stoics believed that the only thing they knew was that they knew nothing as made famous by Seneca. I believe that Marcus Aurelius was talking about arrogance and not getting too big for your shoes because it is impossible to know everything. Even when you feel you know everything about a certain thing, something new often appears that you must learn even more. Much of the time we are led or at least influenced heavily by our primal, animalistic emotions that we can never truly escape.
Instead, we have to be disciplined with ourselves so we can tame them.
13. “Almost nothing material is needed for a happy life for he who has understood existence.”
This Marcus Aurelius quote on life sums up the idea that nothing material you obtain will truly bring you happiness for it’s only your understanding and personal philosophy that can only do this. For stoics like Marcus, it was the understanding that the only thing that can bring you happiness and freedom is controlling how you react to things – everything else is just happening around you, much of it out of your control.
You own nothing, your house, your car, your partner, you do not truly own these things. The only thing you own is your mind and how you conduct yourself. Once you understand this, you can find a sense of freedom and true happiness.
14. “For God’s sake, stop honouring externals, quit turning yourself into the tool of mere matter, or of people who can supply you or deny you those material things.”
Much like the last quote on life, Marcus’ idea is that you should never allow yourself to become a slave to material things. Furthermore, you shouldn’t allow yourself to become a slave to those who can get you the material things you desire. Sure, it’s nice to have a new phone but how easy is it to become addicted to one or even the idea of obtaining one? I’d say very easy these days.
It comes back to what you value. Do you want to value having the flashy new thing that will become outdated within six months or do you want to spend your time worshipping the things that truly matter in your life? There’s nothing wrong with owning your material things because people need somewhere to live and often a phone, but they should never own you.
15. “A man when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season.”
This quote on life reflects the idea of doing good deeds because simply it’s the right thing to do, not so you can then tell people about how good you have been. It’s nice to hear about good deeds but if your only motivation to do them is so you can tell others, perhaps your original intentions were not authentic, to begin with.
How often do you see people pulling out their phones to record their kind acts on social media? Those who do kind acts for others don’t brag about them, they just do them, over and over again.
16. “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.”
Many of us spend much of our time concerned by the opinions of others. At the same time, we don’t always hold high opinions of ourselves. We cannot control others’ opinions and much of the time they are not important anyway, they are misinformed, based on bias or past experiences. All we can control is our opinions of ourselves.
Why not hold a higher opinion of yourself? This is all you can control, after all. Back yourself and it will help you to become more confident, social and outgoing.
17. “Treat whatever happens as natural; not novel or hard to deal with; but familiar and easily handled.”
Another one of Marcus Aurelius’ quotes on life that is a key teaching of Stoicism. Everything is natural for it is bound on this Earth, it is not novel or new. Everything you face has been handled by someone before you.
18. “Today I escaped Anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.”
Life must have been very stressful for a Roman Emperor with the forever threat of assassination and those who conspire against him, not to mention being in control of the world’s largest army that hung on your every word. It’s clear from Marcus’ diary that he suffered a great deal of anxiety. However, turning to Stoic teachings seemed to really help him and I think they can help us today too.
Marcus realised that his anxiety was within him, not coming from the external world. It was his own personal emotion and therefore it was something he could dwell on or let go of. It sounds simple enough but it really is a choice of yours, no one else.
19. “If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say it.”
Often, the best advice is the most simple one. If something doesn’t seem like a good thing to do, you usually already know it within yourself. If something isn’t true, do not spread lies. Doing both does not help yourself or anyone else in any way.
20. “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
Everyone finds it hard to get out of bed from time to time. The days come and go, things happen and it’s easy to lose focus of what matters to you. Above all else, simply paying gratitude to the fact you can breathe, think and feel can make you feel charged and truly alive.
We take these things for granted. After all, we have breathed since we were born, and we have had thoughts and felt things. If you are able-bodied you have had the chance to run, skip, chase, dance, lift your arms and hug your loved ones. These are not owed things, they are privileges that are important to reflect on because they can one day be gone.
21. “Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
When you turn on the news, it feels like everyone is arguing about something. How much time do we waste arguing about how we should be living our lives without ever living them? We concern ourselves with subjects that in the end mean nothing. Marcus believes that your actions speak louder than your words. Stop bogging yourself down by discussing what is good and just be good. Just listen to yourself and do not concern yourself with the noise that spews from others.
22. “Do every act of your life as if it is your last.”
How much freedom and love would you experience if you lived every moment of your life as if it were your last? I think more than you can imagine and I’d think you’d feel pure gratitude towards your loved ones as we mentioned in the last quote. If you did live each day as if they were your last, you would suddenly find more love, more passion, more strength and perspective.
23. “Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”
We’ve all had times where we’ve surprised ourselves. Perhaps you found the courage to finally stand up to a bully and overcome their hold on you. Maybe you powered through a nerve-wracking job interview and got the role. There are many occasions like this where we’re shocked by our own strength. How much could you achieve if you believed that strength was always there, ready to be summoned when needed?
24. “So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”
This is another one of Marcus Aurelius’ quotes on life that reflects the idea that man should face the world in the way he was born to interact with it. That means getting out of bed and doing what a human being is meant to do – to move, work, socialise, etc. You shouldn’t just lay on your back under your duvet all day. Maybe it is comforting right now but you never feel completely satisfied knowing you could and should have been more productive with your time.
25. “It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”
I think Marcus is talking about inner strength again here. He does not believe that anything external can truly harm you, for you are the one who decides how you interface with the world. We all have strength and courage within us but often cannot see it or more importantly, harness it when needed but nonetheless it is always there.
26. “The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you give away.”
Marcus Aurelius talks about not truly owning anything. Again, you never really own your money or your possessions. One of the few things that you can ever keep is the generosity and the gratitude you receive from others when you share your wealth and kindness.
27. “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?”
Whatever you learn and whatever skills you acquire in life, use them. The stoics believe that everything has a purpose and so you should practise what you have learned. If you have learned something valuable, teach someone else and enrich their lives too. Don’t stay in bed all day. Get up and do what you’re good at and inspire others to do the same.
28. “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.”
A lot of us wonder about what our purpose in life really is. However, this can be a dark path to questioning everything. Does it really need to be so complicated? Perhaps all we need to do is remember that we are getting up in the morning to do what a human being does as in quote #24.
29. “Who exactly are these people that you want to be admired by? Aren’t they the same people you are in the habit of calling crazy? And is this your life ambition, then – to win the approval of lunatics?”
This quote from Marcus again reflects a lot about our modern lives. We spend a lot of our time trying to project a certain image of ourselves to those who we often don’t like or truly care for. Why do we do it? Is it to feel superior or accepted? Either way, we compare ourselves to one another and become envious or jealous, always trying to get one up on each other.
Do not concern yourself with the opinions of others or seek their approval – it’s just another external force that can consume you when in reality, it is not within your control and is ultimately futile.
30 “Begin – to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.”
Procrastination is something we all suffer from. It’s always starting something that seems daunting or scary and it’s not until we begin that that feeling subsides. Marcus knew the key to getting things done was to simply start. If you have to leave something 20% done or 50% done, at least you have started and you can always come back to it, and when you do, your task is already smaller and less intimidating.
31. “Always observe how ephemeral and worthless human beings are, and what yesterday was a speck of semen tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes.”
This quote from Marcus Aurelius emphasises his belief that each human being is but a mere speck in time within the vast lifespan of the universe. Just because we are highly intelligent, it does not make us important to the universe. We come and go like the seasons, forever changing. We are born, we grow, we degrade and then die. Perhaps we are not completely worthless but we need to remember the fragility of human life and the little time we are here for.
Don’t fancy going out to a party? Just do it! You might not have hundreds of chances left.
32. “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
The stoics believe in living adjacent to the natural world, after all, everything bound to this planet is natural or came from something natural. This Marcus Aurelius quote on life is quite simple – don’t overthink it, just appreciate the natural beauty that we are so lucky to witness during our short lives.
33. “Because a thing seems difficult for you. do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish.”
This quote from Marcus is timeless and quite arguably one of the most important lessons from the Roman Emperor. Whatever you want to do, just remember there’s usually someone who has done it before you, therefore, there is already a path laid for you to replicate. Find someone who has done the thing you want to and study them, be willing to learn with an open mind. This is easier than ever with the internet if you’re willing to look.
34. “The present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose something he does not already possess.”
There are certainly crossovers between stoicism and mindfulness. Both practise the art of being present and Marcus highlights this with the above quote. You cannot lose what you do not have yet you can only lose your present, not yesterday or tomorrow but today. Today is what matters, right now. This is what you have control over so do not fret about what you have or do not have and just live, taking in each moment fully.
35. “The universe is transformation: life is opinion.”
This is another quote by Marcus that reflects the stoic idea that everything is in a state of natural change at all times. The universe itself is constantly changing so do not be bogged down by the idea you are stuck in your life. Everything is an opinion, not fact. We all perceive things differently and then form our own views based on our perceptions. It’s quite amazing, if you ask me, to know someone like Marcus 2000 years ago understood the flux of the universe itself. It is unquestionable that everything is changing, moving and transforming.
36. “Since the greatest part of what we say and do is unnecessary, dispensing with such activities affords a man more leisure and less uneasiness.”
I believe Marcus is talking about the timeless truth that what we spend much of our time doing and saying is unimportant and largely irrelevant. Before we know it we’re much older, having wasted much time doing unnecessary things. If we look truly look within ourselves, we can spot the things we say and do that waste our time – remove them, and find much more time doing and saying the things that really matter. We will not only feel better but live more enriched lives.
37. “To have contemplated human life for forty years is to contemplate human life for ten thousand years. For what will you see?”
Marcus understood that you could contemplate your existence for an endless amount of time and still be left scratching your head. Or, you could spend your time doing what matters to you. If you had ten thousand years to contemplate human life, perhaps you would still be left with the exact same questions if you contemplated human life for forty. It’s not hard to imagine human beings ten thousand years ago felt the same emotions, and had the same anxieties and questions about their purpose. Of course, their struggles reflected their time but the emotions and questions would likely be the same.
39. “Everything that happens, happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so.”
As many of these Marcus Aurelius quotes on life, this one is another that drives home his idea that everything is natural and therefore happens in a natural manner. There is nothing you can think of that does not happen as it should. The nature of life is such that there will be injury, sadness, grief, joy and happiness. Nothing in the universe is unnatural, even the most heinous of things.
40. ” To the rational animal the same act is at once according to nature and according to reason.”
The wild animals around us live their lives according to reason as they see it. A tiger does not second guess himself when hunting a deer before ripping it apart and a squirrel does not second guess herself when stealing food from a bird feeder. Nature behaves as it does and as human beings, we should also act out our nature with compassion, patience, hard work and kindness.
41. “All things are born from change.”
All things are born from change. Even the moment you were born, you changed from being inside of your mother’s womb to the outside world. Your mother herself changed from a childless woman to a mother with new responsibilities. Anything new in your life is born from change. If you want to be healthier you might quit smoking and your new, smoke-free life will have been born from that simple decision you made. If you swap your job, new opportunities will be born from that change.
42. “What am I going to do about tomorrow? Meet it with the same weapons as today.”
This is the idea that you should not fear tomorrow. If you have handled today, you can use what you’re capable of to tackle tomorrow in the same way. Understanding what you are personally capable of will help you to overcome your obstacles. Look back and see how far you’ve come, getting through each day even when you didn’t want to get out of bed.
43. “You’re better off not giving the small things more attention than they’re worth.”
Marcus talks about focusing on what is important..