Meditations | Study Guide

Marcus Aurelius

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Meditations | Book 4 | Summary



In Book 4 Aurelius speculates on the type of sanctuary that best supports the individual self. He advocates against vainly amassing an outward show of material wealth. Instead, he suggests practicing self-discipline by creating personal order and tranquility from within. The practice provides insulation from jealousy and discontent on the part of others, and reminds the individual to curb appetites for fame, fortune, and praise.

Aurelius also brings up the topic of political community as supported and sustained by the same rational principles as those sustaining a good man. What is good for the whole in the ordering of the universe is good for society and is also good for the individual. One cannot be a stranger to the universe and what is going on there; to act this way is to be like a philosopher without clothes.

Not only is life brief for both "beggar and king," Aurelius says, but its events and activities (birth, sickness, heath, marriage, warring, feasting, etc.) are repeating and cyclical. The same things happen to all people in their lives. The difference is in how the continual changes from one state to the other (exemplified by the exchanges of transformation between the elements of earth, air, fire, and water) are perceived. One person buries another, just as whole cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, were once buried. It therefore makes no sense to let a fear of death guide one's life.

Book 4 contains a series of short aphorisms. For instance, Aurelius says, "Be like the promontory (a high point of land projecting into the sea) against which waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."


The philosopher without clothes mentioned in Book 4 could easily have been a Cynic like Diogenes, or any other philosopher "world-dweller" who cared nothing for possessions. This view of the philosopher as a solitary ascetic with no concern for appearances also applies to Aurelius's mention in Book 11 of Socrates's lack of concern that his wife took his cloak.

In citing Herculaneum and Pompeii, Aurelius supports his comparison of human and natural cycles of transformation. Herculaneum was the site of the Villa of the Papyri, a large library containing philosophical texts in Greek and Latin. Both Herculaneum and the city of Pompeii were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

It is possible that the aphorisms in Book 4 were modeled after those for which Heraclitus was famous. The epigrams of Heraclitus were often cited during the course of philosophical discussions in which Aurelius probably took part as a student and young man in Rome. They include, "We cannot step twice into the same river." Aurelius has his own river analogy: "Time is like a river made up of the events that happen." In Walden (1854), a much later philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, would adapt this concept in his famous quote "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in." The metaphor emphasizes the fleeting nature of life.

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