Meditations | Study Guide

Marcus Aurelius

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Meditations | Book 3 | Summary



Never one to waste time, Aurelius advises making the most of what is to be had in physical health and strength of mind in the present moment, for time eventually corrodes these elements either by death or old age. Such change is inevitable, and Aurelius mentions the physical degradation and death of several esteemed philosophers and emperors, including Alexander the Great. At the same time, he says, things derived from nature hold at least a temporary beauty and essence of their own. He gives the example of a loaf of bread which, when baked, has a split in the top of it. While this "disfigurement" is not "ideal" in beauty, it carries the implication of something good and wholesome to eat.

It is useless to look after what other people are doing or saying. Instead, Aurelius advises to stick to good principles that mutually and interchangeably serve the individual man, society as a whole, and the divine. The concept of the divine includes the "deity which is in thee," which is detached from the senses and answerable to the gods. Take the lessons of history to heart, and then discard the history books, he says, because it does no good to brood on the accomplishments of others. As for the self, all accomplishments are their own reward, and the praises or condemnations of others are irrelevant.


Book 3 is one of the darker segments of Meditations, and the transience of life in the face of the inevitability of death seems uppermost in the author's mind—especially as he lists famous and powerful men of the past. His discussion of ordinary things like olives and bread resonates with the practical observation that perfection of beauty is on par with perfection of happiness. In other words, it is unattainable. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible to achieve contentment and take pleasure in the simple things, knowing that they—as well as the person enjoying them—are transient.

The "deity within" likely refers to a person's "daimon." Socrates referred to this concept as his "little voice inside," or a conscience, which may (or may not) be directly connected to the conscience of everyone. If a man will follow his own daimon, it won't matter how short or long his life is—he is always ready to die without anticipating or fearing it.

Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world in his time. He is often cited by Aurelius in Meditations as an example of a "man on top of the world"—someone with an inestimable amount of wealth and power. Other powerful men mentioned in the same section include the Roman rulers Pompeius and Gaius Caesar, but, as Aurelius reminds himself several times throughout Meditations, it doesn't matter how rich and powerful these men were, because nothing is now left of them. Being a "slave to the vessel" means being a slave to the body, which is only a temporary container for the superior "contents" of intelligence and deity (daimon).

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