Spoiler alert! Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book. Feel free to comment or share yours below.
Marcus Aurelius, after a reign of 20 years, died at Vienna. He was then preparing to make war against the Germans. His body was carried to Rome, where it was received in the midst of tears and public sorrow. The Senate, in mourning, preceded the funeral chariot, which was accompanied by the people and the army. The son of Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor Commodus, followed the chariot. The procession was slow and silent. Suddenly an old man advanced in the crowd. His stature was tall, his air venerable, all knew him. It was Apollonius, the Stoic philosopher, esteemed at Rome, and more respected for his talents than for his great age. He had all the rigid virtues of his sect, and, moreover, he had been the instructor and the friend of Marcus Aurelius. He stopped near the coffin, looked sadly at it, and suddenly raising his voice...
May I, at the end of my career, in surveying the life of Marcus Aurelius, honor, in your eyes, the last moments of mine and you, who are here present, you, his successor and his son, listen to the virtues and actions of your father. You are about to reign – flattery waits to corrupt you. Perhaps, for the last time, you hear a voice altogether free. Your father, you know, never accustomed me to speak the language of a slave. He loved truth – truth dictates his eulogium. May she also one day dictate your own.
A greedy heir recollects, with pleasure, all those from whom he has received riches; Marcus Aurelius, more advanced in age, remembered all those to whom, in infancy, he owed the example of virtue.
He was soon taught, by preceptors, the duties of man, and these by their practice. They never said to him, ‘Love the unfortunate’, but they relieved, before him, those who were so. No one said to him, ‘Be worthy of friends’; he saw one of his teachers sacrifice his fortune to an oppressed friend. I saw a warrior, who, to give him a lesson of courage, showed him his bosom all covered with wounds. In the same way they spoke to him of mildness, magnanimity, justice, and firmness. I myself had the glory of being associated with these illustrious instructors.
He never sought to lose himself in sciences useless to man. He soon saw that the study of nature is an abyss, and applied philosophy wholly to morals. First, he cast his view on the different sects around him. He distinguished one which taught to raise man above himself. He thus discovered, as it were, a new world in which pleasure and pain are extinguished, where the senses have lost all influence over the mind, where poverty, riches, life, death are nothing, where virtue alone triumphs.
Here, Romans, the mind of Marcus Aurelius is completely developed, the chain of his ideas, the principles on which his moral life reposed. It is not I who shall present you this picture – it is Marcus Aurelius himself. I shall read you a writing which he penned with his own hand, more than thirty years ago, when he was not yet emperor. ‘Here Apollonius’, said he to me, ‘take this writing, and if ever I deviate from the sentiments my hand has traced, make me blush in the eyes of the universe.’
‘I meditated during the night. I laboured to find in what goodness consists, and on what basis justice rests. ‘Marcus Aurelius’, said I to myself, ‘till the present moment you have been virtuous, or at least you were willing to be so, but who assures you that you will always have this intention? Who has even told you, that what you name virtue is so in reality?’ I was frightened at this doubt, and I resolved to ascend, if possible, to first principles, to assure myself of myself, and to know the path which man ought to follow. The place and time favored my reflections. The night was deep and calm. All around me was in repose. I only heard, near my palace, the waters of the Tiber somewhat agitated. But this continued and hollow noise was itself favorable to thought, and I gave myself up to the following meditations.
A second chain presented itself to me, that of our wants. In fine, I saw that men are united by still closer ties. For all minds, there is one and the same reason; as for all physical beings, there is one and the same light. If there is but one reason, there is but one law. Men of all countries, and of all ages, are then subject to the same legislation – all are fellow citizens of the same town: this town is the universe. Then it was that I saw fall around me all the barriers which separate nations, and I beheld only one people and one family.
Marcus Aurelius, between truth and you, rivers, mountains, and seas will be continually interposed; often will you only be separated from her by the walls of your palace, and yet she will not reach you: you will borrow assistance, but this assistance will be an imperfect remedy for your weakness. Action intrusted to other arms either changes the object, or is too weak or too precipitate. Nothing is executed as the prince conceived; he is told nothing, as if he himself had seen it. They exaggerate the good, they extenuate the evil, they justify crimes, and the prince, always weak or deceived, exposed to the infidelity, or error of those whom he has instructed to see and to understand, finds himself continually placed between the inability of knowing, and the necessity of acting.
In this interval I had a dream. I imagined I saw a multitude of men assembled in a vast portico; they had all, in their appearance, something noble and great. Although I had never lived with them, their features were not those of strangers. I thought I had often contemplated their statues at Rome. I surveyed them all, when a terrible and loud voice resounded in the portico, ‘Mortals, learn to suffer.’
There are wicked men – they are useful to thee; without them, what need would there be for virtues? You complain of the ungrateful! Imitate nature; she gives all to man, and seeks nothing in return. But injury? Injury vilifies him who commits, and not him who receives it. And calumny? Thank the gods that your enemies, to speak evil of you, have recourse to falsehood. But disgrace? There is no disgrace for the just.
And life? At this moment, I perceived, in the place where I meditated, one of those sand instruments which measure time; my eye was fixed upon it. I looked at the grains of dust, which, in falling, marked the portions of its duration. Marcus Aurelius, said I to myself, time was given you to be useful to men; what have you already done for them? Life vanishes; years flow on; one falls on another like these grains of sand. Make haste – you are placed between two abysses, of time which preceded, and of time which must follow you. Between these, life is a point; let it be marked by thy virtues – be good, be free, and despise death.
I will subdue my passions, and even the most terrible of all, because the most agreeable, the love of pleasure. Life is a combat; we must continually struggle. I shall shun luxury because luxury enervates the mind through all the senses; I shall avoid it, because a luxurious prince exhausts his treasures to satisfy his caprice. I shall almost live as if I were poor; though a prince, I have only the wants of a man. I shall give to sleep the time of which I cannot deprive it; I shall say to myself every morning, ‘this is the hour when crimes awake, when passions and vices take possession of the universe, when the unhappy awake to the sentiment of their evils; when the oppressed, moving in his prison, again feels the weight of his chains. It is for virtue, it is for beneficence, it is for the sacred authority of the laws, to awake at the same moment – let labor alone form the relaxation of my labor. If study and business occupy all my hours, pleasure will find no void of which she can take possession.
Marcus Aurelius perceived that nature has infused a general spirit of fellowship among men; from this he saw spring up the idea of liberty, because there is no fellowship where there is only a master and a slave; no property, because without the assurance of possession there is no longer any social order; no justice, because justice alone can reestablish the equilibrium which the passions tend to destroy. Nor, in short, is there benevolence, since men being all associated, there is no man vile in the eyes of nature; and if all have not the same right to the same rank, they have all a right to the same happiness. Such was the general principle of his reign.
I have seen him pass many nights in succession, in the examination of an important affair which he had to decide. We studied together; I wished to engage him to take repose. ‘Apollonius’, said he to me, ‘let us give an example to all these men greedy of pleasure, and fatigued with business, who pretend to separate labors and honors’.
The hand which had directed the ploughshare, has conducted, under him, the pretorian guards, and to choose a husband to his daughter, he cast his eyes on Pompeius, who, instead of ancestors, had merit. An alliance with virtue, said he, cannot dishonor the master of the world.’
His last moments – as I was present, I can render you an account of them – were those of a great man and a sage. The sickness with which he was attacked, did not trouble him; accustomed during fifty years to meditate on Nature, he had learned to know her, and was taught submission to her laws. I recollect well that one day he said to me, ‘Apollonius, everything changes around me; the world today is not that of yesterday, and that of tomorrow will not be what we have today. Amongst all these motions can I alone remain fixed? The torrent must also drag me along; everything warns me that one day I shall cease to exist. The ground on which I tread has been trodden by thousands of men who have disappeared; the annals of empires, the ruins of towns, urns and statues, what are all these, but images of what is no more? That sun which thou seest, shines only upon tombs.’ Thus the philosophic prince exercised, and fortified his mind.