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Meditations of Marcus Aurelius


Emperor Marcus Aurelius (born Marcus Annius Verus —aurelius appears to mean "gilttering") reigned from 161 to 180 during the famous pax romana.

However, pax or no pax, he had his hands full because virtually all of the imperial frontiers were threatened with invasions, because Christians struck many Romans as getting entirely out of hand, despite persecutions, and because troops sent to try to conquer the Parthians returned home bringing a plague that devastated the city of Rome. (His reign is nevertheless considered Rome's "golden age"; there is an important lesson in that.)

Marcus Aruelius was both thoughtful and learnèd, and his Meditations is still considered one of the masterpieces of ancient writing and one of the best distillations of the Stoic school of philosophy. (Wikipedia Article)

The following brief passage on prayer concisely illustrates some features of Roman Stoic thought. Line numbers are added to facilitate reference during class discussion or arguments with your roommate.


Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (9:40)

Modified from the translation of George Long (1862)
Based on the Latin text edited by J.M. Schulz (1802)
(Go to bilingual version.)

1. Either the gods have no power or they have power. If they have no power, why do you pray to them?
2. But if they have power, why not pray to them asking for the faculty of not fearing whatever you fear, or not desiring whatever you desire, or not being pained at whatever pains you, rather than praying that any of these things happen or not happen to you?
3. Certainly if the gods can cooperate with people, they can cooperate this way, and say what you will, the gods have placed emotions [fear, desire, pain] in your power.
4. So then is it not better to use what is in your power like a free agent than to ask slavishly and abjectly for what is not in your power?
5. And who has told you that the gods do not aid us even in the things [like emotions] which are in our power? So begin then to pray for those things and you will see what I mean.
6. For example, a certain man prays thus: “[Oh gods,] help me to lie with that woman.” But you should pray this way: “[Oh gods,] help me not to desire to lie with that woman.”
7. Another man prays thus: “Let me be released from this.” Better to say: “Let me not desire to be released from this.”
8. Or another prays, “Let me not lose my little son.” Better to say: “Let me not be afraid to lose my little son.”
9. In short, say your prayers this way and see what happens [for they will be answered].

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