For a Roman emperor and the most powerful man in the world, Marcus Aurelius lived a notably uncomfortable life. Choosing a life of stoicism rather than comfort, Aurelius shirked the luxuries that his high status provided him. He slept in a simple cot with an animal skin rather than a comfortable bed. He worked incessantly, never foregoing his imperial duties even while on holiday. Even during his later years, Aurelius never relaxed his commitment to duty. During the latter two decades of his 58 year life, Aurelius spent the majority of his time cold and hungry, huddled with his men at a military encampment in the lands surrounding the Danube River. Here the hardened philosopher-king and his legions drove back barbarian incursions from Roman lands, maintaining imperial borders at a high cost to himself and his men.
Though the dedication he showed toward his royal duties was unmatched, perhaps the greatest contribution the emperor ever gave to the world was his private diary. Never intended for the public, Aurelius’ wrote down personal insights and observations while on campaign against barbarian tribes in eastern Europe – fighting by day and philosophizing by night. These personal insights are referred to as his Meditations and have been passed down for nearly two millennia, provoking contemplation in audiences of all backgrounds. Meditations is often considered the epitome of stoic philosophy although Aurelius draws on multiple schools of philosophical thought in addition to stoicism. Nevertheless the work is a unique opportunity to peer into the mind of a man remarkably positioned as the leader of the greatest empire in history, a man who controlled the fates of 75 million people, a quarter of the world’s population at that time.
Meditations offers the modern reader a wealth of practical wisdom from someone who reached the pinnacle of success. In this work we learn the importance of thanksgiving, the pitfalls of extraneous praise, and the primacy of mindset over circumstance.
The first lesson that Aurelius reflects upon in his diary is the importance of thanksgiving. The emperor acknowledges that much of the wisdom he received throughout his life was imparted to him by others. In the first book of his diary (Meditations is subdivided into twelve books), Aurelius thanks various figures in his life that have passed on knowledge or habits that have been beneficial to him. Aurelius writes:
“From my grandfather Verus, I learned about nobility of character and steady temper.”
“From his reputation and my own memory of my father, modesty and strength.”1.1, 1.2
The emperor goes on to thank his mother, his tutors, various philosophers he’s studied, and other family members who have been exemplary to him. Every entry in the first book acknowledges a different person showing Aurelius’ appreciation to those that came before him and his humility in understanding that his life and success have been guided, at least in part, by those around him. Finally, in the last entry of Book One, Aurelius thanks the gods for placing these people in his life. Here Aurelius recognizes a hierarchy of influence in the events and people that have shaped his life.
Today we may not recognize the same gods that Aurelius did, but his sentiment toward thanksgiving is wise: we should give thanks for the people, circumstances, and events in our lives that have been edifying, and ultimately we should recognize that those things have all been arranged by a higher logos.
As leader of the Roman Empire, it’s fair to say that Marcus Aurelius received a great deal of praise: well-earned and also the usual lip service a man of high status receives from career-climbing subordinates. He was careful to not let adulation inflate his ego however, and cautioned against heeding flattery and criticism from others. Aurelius writes about how it is foolish to desire praise from most people:
“Do you desire to be praised by a man who curses himself three times an hour? Do you desire to gain the approval of people who do not even approve of themselves?”8.53
Aurelius was extremely action oriented, an intended consequence of his stoic training. The emperor stressed the importance of actions in and of themselves regardless of potential rewards or backlash. Aurelius writes:
“When you have done a good act and another has fared well by it, why seek a third reward besides these, as fools do, be it the reputation for having done a good act or getting something in return?”7.73
Quite eloquently the emperor sums up his thoughts on praise:
“Everything which results in something beautiful is itself beautiful and is complete in itself, with praise holding no essential role. Therefore, whatever is praised becomes neither better nor worse because it is or is not praised. I assert this also of things which are commonly called beautiful, such as material things and the various arts and crafts. Does that which is beautiful really need anything in addition? No – no more than Law does; no more than Truth; no more than kindness, than modesty. Which of these is beautiful or ugly on account of being either praised or slandered? Does an emerald become ugly if it is not admired? What about gold, ivory, royal purple dye, the lyre, the sword, or a flower?”4.20
As mentioned above, Marcus Aurelius prioritized actions over feelings or beliefs. As a result, Aurelius was a workaholic, finding it difficult to relax from his administrative responsibilities. Even while on holiday, the emperor fretted constantly. After being urged to rest by his tutor Fronto, Aurelius wrote back in a letter, “I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off.” Aurelius reveals his philosophy on rest in Meditations:
“Take pleasure and rest in one thing only: making your way from one communal duty to another, always remembering god.”6.7
Although today the term “philosopher” draws to mind one who sits in a leather chair and contemplates deeply impractical conundrums with a cigar and whiskey, in Aurelius’ day this was not so. A philosopher was someone who adhered to a particular philosophical school’s daily practices. Philosophy was a way of life, not merely a field of study. The end goal of philosophy was action. Philosophy was practical. Aurelius describes this succinctly in the following entry:
“Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one.”10.16
Aurelius strove to live out his convictions rather than stew over them as evidenced by his adventurous life. Aurelius teaches us here that to live a philosophical life does not mean that it will be a dull endeavor. The philosopher’s life is one of action.
Part of taking the correct action is first having the correct mindset over a given circumstance. One’s attitude can help determine how to approach a situation and help to alleviate suffering along the way. Aurelius notes how much of what happens to us is out of our control. To brood over unfortunate circumstances is counterproductive and leads to bitterness. The emperor records that, though we cannot control the majority of what is external to us, we can control our internal state:
“When jarred unavoidably by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.”6.11
A return to this inner “rhythm” was key to the stoic school of philosophy, as much of the practice revolved around maintaining an inner peace despite the chaos of the world. One way to achieve this was to adjust one’s expectations. Aurelius argues that one should not beg the universe for certain outcomes, but rather build an inner fortitude that can handle the rough waters of life. Aurelius discusses this when describing how one should pray:
“Begin to pray in the following way and you will see. Someone else may pray: “How may I possess that woman?” But you should pray: “How may I not lust after that woman?” Someone else prays: “How can I be rid of him?” But you: “How can I not wish to be rid of him?” Another: “How may I not lose my little child?” But you: “How may I not dread the loss of my child?” Turn your prayers around entirely, and see what happens.”9.40
Meditations reveals the psyche of a man who had it all yet managed to stay grounded in reality. The writings are surprisingly down to earth; perhaps they could serve as a guide-book for those in power on how to rule justly and maintain a connection to the people. The sage advice applies much more broadly than to rulers, however. Each person that picks up Meditations can learn something from it and put into practice what they’ve learned, striving to become a philosopher in the way the emperor would have understood it. To these would-be philosophers Aurelius offers a final word of encouragement:
“What could be clearer? No other life is more appropriate for the practice of philosophy than that life which you now happen to be living.”11.7