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Is the attribution of this quote to Marcus Aurelius correct?

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Examples against the attribution: Three shouts on a hill top blog post and Wikiquote

Examples in favour of the attribution: GoodReads and Richard Dawkins.net

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    Do you have any more information? Where did the quote come from? Why do you believe it was attributed to him in error? Is it attributed to anyone else? – Sam I Am Nov 18 '11 at 21:02
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    Added more information. I am genuinely puzzled – Sklivvz Nov 18 '11 at 22:39
  • Didn't a quote very similar to it come from the movie Gladiator? Although, the Wikiquotes site says no instance of this was found prior to 2010, but I just found this one from 2009: faculty.eng.fau.edu/omarques/2009/12/15/quote-of-the-day-2 Although I know very little of Florida Atlantic University. – Larian LeQuella Nov 19 '11 at 0:46
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    @matt: I do not think it is the kind of thing he would have said because (a) he was reverential towards the gods and (b) it is doubtful he would have seen merit in living on in the memories of others – Henry Dec 5 '11 at 8:30
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    @jwenting - Marcus Aurelius was, himself, the Roman emperor at the time. – ChrisW Mar 5 '12 at 4:19
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No.

The main body of writings from Marcus Aurelius is The Meditations.

I read The Meditations very carefully when preparing to write my 2005 book, Marcus Aurelius: The Dialogues (Shepheard-Walwyn). I certainly cannot recall having read this particular quote by Aurelius.


[Mod note: Having answered the question above, the following is speculation by an expert in the field, which may cast more light on the origins of the misquote.]

I did however have MA in my book engage in a fictional debate re the classic question: If evil falls upon the innocent, how can the gods be just? In my book, MA considers each of the standard logical answers to the question:

  1. They are not just;
  2. They are unaware of the evils that befall upon the innocent;
  3. They are aware but powerless to intervene;
  4. The gods don't exist.

BTW: I have MA dismiss each of the above answers.

With all due modesty on my part, I wonder if the above quote may possibly have been triggered by this particular section of my book.


Could I imagine MA making such a quote?

Yes, in part, I could. Certainly, he was doubtful whether the after-life existed but was convinced that whether it did or not was irrelevant to how we should choose to behave in this life.

That said, he disdained the concept of living with the object of achieving honour in the minds of posterity.

Hence, I am dubious he would have said "If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones".

I believe that MA's key message for himself (and now, as it happened accidentally, for us) was that to achieve peace of mind (the spirit at rest with itself) then we should engage with life in a virtous, charitable and kindly manner: That the peace of mind we thereby earn is sufficient reward in itself; we neither need - nor deserve more.

  • Why do you say, "he disdained the concept of living with the object of achieving honour in the minds of posterity"? Isn't that at all contradicted by his opening chapter's being a grateful recitation of thanks, to all his (past) teachers? – ChrisW Mar 5 '12 at 0:23
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    There's no logical fallacy in disdaining actively seeking out honor from posterity and voluntarily granting honor to the people he learned from. Presumably, his teachers taught because they considered imparting knowledge a virtuous thing to do, not because they wanted to be remembered as teachers after their deaths. – Shadur Feb 8 '14 at 10:26
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    @Chrisw In other words, live a virtuous life because it's the right thing to do, and if you're fondly remembered for your deeds after your death, that's a bonus. If your sole reason for living a virtuous life is to win acclaim, you're doing it for the wrong reasons -- and it suggests that you would just as easily live an unvirtuous life if you believed that that would win you more acclaim... – Shadur Feb 8 '14 at 10:28
  • It's pretty clear the quote was not triggered by the above author's book, since the book was published in 2005, and there's at least one confirmed usage of it in its entirety and attributed to MA from February 2004. – CXJ Feb 27 '16 at 19:39
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Partially True.

There is lots of room for discussion, since this we are talking about a 1,800+ year old text that has been translated from ancient Latin into modern English, but this quote is likely derived from Meditations 2.11.

My "Penguin Books" copy of Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth in 1964 gives the passage as follows (emphasis mine):

"In all you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your own hands. If gods exist, you have nothing to fear in taking leave of mankind, for they will not let you come to harm. But if there are no gods, or if they have no concern with mortal affairs, what is life to me, in a world devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? Gods, however, do exist..."

I'm not a huge fan of the MIT text that Alan Stedall referenced, because I'm not reading Meditations as an academic, and I find the language kind generally less accessible. That said, I understand it is a highly regarded translation. The same passage in that text reads (again, emphasis mine):

"Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But in truth they do exist..."

Now, I rated this "Partially True" because it appears to be based on an actual quote, but either taken out of context or mis-translated.

The phrase "they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by" is attempting to modernize an idea that is in truth closer to "they will guide you away from evil", and the second concept is less as "[you] will have lived a noble life" and more as "nothing matters because there is no reason for anything."

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It is in MA's Meditations. Book 2.11.

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    Meditations 2.11 starts "Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly." It is somewhat similar to this in that translation but different. This would be a better answer if you explained why you thought this was a reasonable translation of the original Latin. – Brythan Sep 9 '16 at 23:54

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