Marcus Aurelius was the greatest Roman emperor, best known for his work “Meditations,” which contains his self-talks and philosophical reflections on Socrates, Cynicism, and Stoicism.
Marcus wrote “Meditations” over a decade, from around 170 CE to 180 CE.
The work was not intended for publication, as it was a series of personal reflections and philosophical notes that Marcus wrote for his self-improvement and guidance.
It became known to the public several centuries after his death.
The earliest known manuscript of “Meditations” dates back to the 10th century, while the first printed edition was published in 1558 or 1559 in Zurich, Switzerland.
Top 10 Marcus Aurelius Quotes
Here are ten of Marcus Aurelius’ most famous quotes:
1. The happiness of your life…
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”– Meditations, 3.9
That quote is present in the 19th-century reprint of the 1701 Jeremy Collier translation of Meditations as:
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts, therefore guard accordingly; and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. Now in order to this, you must be wary in your ascent, obedient to the gods, and benevolent to mankind. (Meditations, 3.9)
The Gregory Hays translation puts it as:
Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine. (Meditations, 3.9)
Marcus meant: Your thoughts shape your life and your happiness. If you think positively and focus on good things, you will be happier.
In a more modern context, the following quote comes close, where the Buddha is talking about how our experiences ultimately become habits:
“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.”– Buddha, Verse 2, Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran
2. When you arise in the morning…
“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.”– Meditations, 2.1
Gregory Hays puts it as:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions. (Meditations, 2.1)
Marcus asks us to feel blessed to be alive each morning and prepare ourselves to meet people who will try to bring us down. But our goodness is in not getting angry at them.
In a similar tone, Voltaire said:
“I have decided to be happy because it is good for my health.”
3. Everything we hear is an opinion…
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”– misattributed to Marcus Aurelius
That quote is often attributed to Marcus Aurelius, but it does not appear in the “Meditations” as such.
Something roughly similar that appears in the Robin Hard translation is this (which Hard in his footnote says is a quote from Democrates).:
… So in the future, remember to retreat into this little plot of earth that is truly your own, and above all, do not distress or overstrain yourself, but preserve your freedom, and look at things as a man, a human being, a citizen, a mortal creature. And among the precepts which you keep most closely at hand for frequent reference, let the following be included: firstly, that things of themselves have no hold on the mind, but stand motionless outside it, and all disturbances arise solely from the opinions within us; and secondly, that all that you presently behold will change in no time whatever and cease to exist; and constantly reflect on how many such changes you yourself have already witnessed. (Meditations 4.3)
Marcus means that people have different opinions and perspectives on things, but that doesn’t make them true. It’s important to think critically and not just believe everything we hear or see.
Marcus refers to the idea that we attach our opinion to our experiences, categorizing them as “good” or “bad” or otherwise. And we alone have control over that opinion. He also points out that getting stressed about how things are is pointless because nothing is permanent.
A similar quote is from Socrates:
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
4. The best revenge is…
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”– Meditations, 6.6
Marcus tells himself that if someone were to hurt him, he should not don’t try to hurt them back. Instead, practice being the better person by acting kindly and not letting their actions change who he is.
George Herbert said something similar: “The best revenge is a life well lived.”
Mahatma Gandhi said it memorably:
“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
5. Waste no more time arguing about…
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”– Meditations, 10.16
The quote urges us not to waste time talking about how to be a good person, but rather to focus on our actions to be better versions of ourselves.
Marcus asks us to stay good and keep growing, rather than criticizing others or making superficial judgments. He implores us to live a life that reflects our values.
A modern quote that comes close is by Steve Jobs:
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
6. Accept the things to which fate binds you…
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” – Meditations, 6.44
In Robin Hard’s translation, it appears as:
If the gods have taken counsel about me and what must happen to me, they have taken good counsel; for a god who makes ill-advised decisions can scarcely be imagined, and what motive could possibly impel them to do me harm? (Meditations, 6.44)
The quote emphasizes embracing the circumstances and relationships that life presents us with, wholeheartedly and without resistance. We should embrace the life we have, including the people in it, and love them without judging them.
Wayne Dyer said this:
“Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.”
7. It is not death that a man should fear…
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”– Meditations, 3.1
Gregory Hays puts it as:
So we need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be gone before we get there. (Meditations, 3.1)
The quote encourages us to focus on truly living and experiencing life rather than worrying about the inevitability of death. Marcus asks us to focus on making the most of our lives and enjoying every moment, instead of living in the fear of death.
Mahatma Gandhi says this:
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
8. The soul becomes dyed…
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”– Meditations, 5.16
Gregory Hays says it as:
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. (Meditations, 5.16)
Marcus means that our thoughts affect our inner self, and over time, they can change who we are. When we think good thoughts, we create a kind and good self.
Oprah Winfrey said,
“You become what you believe.”
9. If it is not right, do not do it…
“If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.– Meditations, 12.17 (paraphrased)
Robin hard puts it as:
If something is not right, do not do it, if something is not true, do not say it; for you should keep your impulses under your own control. (Meditations, 12.17)
Marcus asks that before you do or utter anything, make certain that it is both correct and true. This will help you become a more honest and responsible person.
In C.S. Lewis’ immortal words:
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
10. In no great while you will be no one…
In no great while you will be no one and nowhere, and nothing that you now behold will be in existence, nor will anyone now alive. – Meditations, 12.21
Marcus Aurelius reflects on the impermanence of life and the inevitable passage of time. He tells us that one day rather too soon, we won’t be here, and neither will the people and things we see now.
He reminds us that life replaces old things and people with new ones. By accepting this, we can learn to appreciate what we have now and understand that our time is precious.
Michael Altshuler reminds us how time moves quickly:
“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”
Marcus Aurelius ponders on death most beautifully in the final quote in “Meditations”:
“Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.”– Meditations, 12.36
Did Marcus Aurelius say, “Death smiles at us all?”
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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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