Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Marcus Aurelius on using reason to live one’s life “straight and right” (170)

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180) was also a Stoic philosopher whose Meditations (written while on a military campaign during the 170s) were highly influential during the Scottish Enlightenment. He exhorted each person to find peace within themselves by discovering the natural laws which governed the universe and living one’s life in accordance with them. His advice was to live one’s life “always straight and right, and not as amended or rectified” by others:

  1. Do nothing with reluctance, or forgetting the kind social bond, or without full inquiry, or hurried into it by any passion. Seek not to set off your thoughts with studied elegance. Be neither a great talker, nor undertaker of many things. And let the God within thee find he rules a man of courage, an aged man, a good citizen, a Roman, who regulates his life, as waiting for the signal to retreat out of it, without reluctance at his dissolution; who needs not for a bond of obedience, either the tie of an oath, or the observation of others. Join also a chearful countenance, an independence on the services of others, a mind which needs not retirement from the world, to obtain tranquillity; but can maintain it without the assistance of others. One should rather appear to have been always straight and right, and not as amended or rectified.

Book III.

5. Do nothing with reluctance, or forgetting the kind social bond, or without full inquiry, or hurried into it by any passion. Seek not to set off your thoughts with studied elegance. Be neither a great talker, nor undertaker of many things. And let the God within thee find he rules a man of courage, an aged man, a good citizen, a Roman, who regulates his life, as waiting for the signal to retreat out of it, without reluctance at his dissolution; who needs not for a bond of obedience, either the tie of an oath, or the observation of others. Join also a chearful countenance, an independence on the services of others, a mind which needs not retirement from the world, to obtain tranquillity; but can maintain it without the assistance of others. One should rather appear to have been always straight and right, and not as amended or rectified.

6. If you can find any thing in human life better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude; or, to sum up all, than to have your mind perfectly satisfied with what actions you are engaged in by right reason, and what providence orders independently of your choice: if you find any thing better, I say, turn to it with all your soul, and enjoy the noble discovery. But if nothing appears more excellent than the divinity seated within you, when it hath subjected to its self all its passions, examined all appearances which may excite them, and, as Socrates expresses it, has torn itself off from the attachments to sense; has subjected it self to the Gods, and has an affectionate care of mankind: If you find all things mean and despicable in comparison with this, give place to nothing else: for, if you once give way, and lean towards any thing else, you will not be able, without distraction of mind, to preserve the preference of esteem and honour to your own proper and true good. For it is against the law of justice, that any thing of a different kind withstand the proper good of the rational and social nature; such as the views of popular applause, power, riches, or sensual enjoyments. All these things, if we allow them even for a little to appear suitable to our nature, immediately become our masters and hurry us away. But do you I say, with liberty, and simplicity of heart, chuse what is most excellent, and hold to it resolutely. What is most excellent is most advantageous. If so to the rational nature, retain it; but if only to the animal, renounce it. And preserve the judging power unbyassed by external appearances, that it may make a just and impartial inquiry…

16. The body, the animal soul, the intellectual. To the body belong the senses: to the animal soul, the appetites and passions: to the intellectual, the maxims of life. To have sensible impressions exciting imaginations, is common to us with the cattle. To be moved, like puppets, by appetites and passions, is common to us with the wild beasts, with the most effeminate wretches, Phalaris, and Nero, with atheists, and with traitors to their country. If these things, then, are common to the lowest and most odious characters, this must remain as peculiar to the good man; to have the intellectual part governing and directing him in all the occurring offices of life; to love and embrace all which happens to him by order of providence; to preserve the divinity placed in his breast, pure, undisturbed by a croud of imaginations, and ever calm and well-pleased, and to follow with a graceful reverence the dictates of it as of a God; never speaking against truth, or acting against justice. And, tho’ no man believe he thus lived, with simplicity, modesty, and tranquillity; he neither takes this amiss from any one; nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life; at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to part with life, and accommodated to his lot without reluctance.

About this Quotation:

It is extraordinary to think that Marcus Aurelius wrote these meditations while he was planning to fight or actually waging war near the Danube river. They are deep reflections on human nature, the natural laws which govern the world, the dangers of being swept away by one’s passions or emotions, and the need to live one’s one life in a self-critical and calm manner under the guidance of reason. These are not the kind of thoughts one usually associates with military leaders in the heat of battle. However, Marcus Aurelius does hint at the passions which might have been flooding his mind at this time when he warns against the dangers of the “animal soul” overwhelming “the intellectual” soul. Without the distance and calm which he believed reason provides us men can “be moved, like puppets, by appetites and passions, (which) is common to us with the wild beasts.” The Scottish enlightened thinker Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was drawn to the Meditations which he helped translate from the Greek in 1742, thus making this book one of the more influential texts of the Scottish Enlightenment.

More Quotations