Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Sol Waters


Everything flows, and nothing stays [the same].    —Herakleitos


Deemed the Caesar immune from corruption, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ruled as Emperor of Rome between 161 and 180 CE. He kept journals covering a range of ethical and cosmological topics, referred to variously as The Meditations, Thoughts, or To Himself. Here, I arrange verses from To Himself, Books IV and X, in a progressive sequence to make clear a relationship between the Emperor’s ethics and his cosmology.

Book IV.36

Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.

To recognize that there is change is to stumble on the foundation of existence. What is change? A quick answer leads us away from the central mystery. The only Eternal is change—that’s why I give my loved ones nickels and dimes.

Book X.11

Acquire the contemplative way of seeing how all things change into one another, and constantly attend to it, and exercise thyself about this part [of philosophy]. For nothing is so much adapted to produce magnanimity.

To recognize how there is change is to learn the workings of existence. The process continues, as a more powerful mind asks why?

We find a definition of magnanimity, together with the meanings of two other important terms (or names), by backing up a few verses in Book X.

Book X.8

And remember that the term Rational was intended to signify a discriminating attention to every several thing and freedom from negligence; and that Equanimity is the voluntary acceptance of the things which are assigned to thee by the common nature; and that Magnanimity is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh, and above that poor thing called fame, and death, and all such things. [Italics added]

Taken together, the qualities behind the names provide a powerful basis for living. In the outer life, one fulfills tasks to the last detail; in the breast, one keeps a peace such as not to overreach foolishly; in the mind, one focuses on exaltation and expansion of intellect.

X.8 continues

If, then, thou maintainest thyself in the possession of these names, without desiring to be called by these names by others, thou wilt be another person and wilt enter on another life . . . But if thou shalt perceive that thou fallest out of them and dost not maintain thy hold, go courageously into some nook where thou shalt maintain them, or even depart at once from life, not in passion, but with simplicity and freedom and modesty, after doing this one [laudable] thing at least in thy life, to have gone out of it thus.

As an outlook, we are admonished to acquire and maintain three basic virtues, or die. For Marcus Aurelius, there was a connection between understanding the general nature of change and elevating intellect, and this lead to a very dynamic personal existence.


Questions for further study:

What might be adapted to produce “rational” behavior and “equanimity”?

How did philosophies of change help in the development of science?

Marcus died of natural causes at the age of 59, so apparently he never lost his virtues (at least in his own eyes). Still, To Himself reflects a degree of ageism, sexism, and nationalism. In accordance with his sense of justice, if Marcus had recognized how useless those qualities are, would he indeed have done himself in?





Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations. Trans. George Long. Cont. in Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. Ed. Charles W. Eliot. New York: Grolier, 1980. 193-301.

Harrison, Paul. Marcus Aurelius—The Philosopher-Emperor. 10 Mar. 1997. <> (28 Aug 1999).

The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers. Ed. Whitney J. Oates. New York: Random House, 1940. 131-33.