I’ve made a very good friend in the past year or so.
Through my ups and downs, he’s become a companion, a mentor. I consult him when I fail. When I succeed, he gives his input to show me what could be next. He’s taught me the practical value of philosophy and, now, a big chunk of who I am and how I think is inspired by him.
Marcus was his name.
Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. We don’t hear much about him in the highlight reel of Ancient Rome because, well, he ruled during a relatively peaceful period. What made him different from other Emperors though is his commitment to one particular philosophy: Stoicism.
Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium, is a school of thought that is pretty much summed up by the line, by Zeno, that, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” The wisdom of philosophy centers around rationality and control (more on this later).
Marcus practiced Stoicism, and the reason why we know so much about him as a philosopher is that he kept a detailed diary of his notes on Stoicism – the Meditations. For a long time, this book served as a bible of sorts to me and is one of the most life-changing things I’ve read to date.
There are other Stoic philosophers – and many of them wrote damn good stuff too – but I was drawn especially to Marcus Aurelius because he wrote these meditations in action. He didn’t write them while he was in an old library looking back at his life, or to prepare for elaborate classroom lectures on Stoicism. He wrote them while ruling, while waging wars to keep Rome’s territory intact, while going about his daily affairs as Emperor. He was writing them to guide himself, to reprimand himself, to meditate in favor of day-to-day improvement.
Reading Meditations, one can almost feel the struggle, the suffering.
So what does he have to say? Plenty.
To me, the crux of his brand of Stoicism zooms in on clarity.
According to Marcus, you have to see clearly as positive and negative things happen to you and avoid being distracted by emotions. Is it really necessary to get angry or should you spend your energy looking for an immediate resolution instead? Should you really be let down by something wrong said about you, or should you let it pass, knowing that you can’t really please everyone? Life is made not just because things happen to us but, more importantly, because of how we react to the things that happen.
From the book, several lines also point to the need to see other people clearly. One should not make the mistake of resorting to quick judgments on a person’s goodness or worth. We have more in common with people who we see as mean, arrogant, or deceptive than we’d like to think.
Clarity of purpose is also a big theme for Marcus. For himself, the major objective is to be good – fair, kind, understanding – despite the obstacles strewn along the way. Another goal is to steer one’s own ship – and not get swayed by fleeting fame, the opinions of others, or the illusion of a long life.
But don’t take it from me. Without further ado…
I: On Reacting to Outside Events
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”
II: On Taking Control of Your Mind
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
“You are an old man. Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.”
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”
III: On Dealing With Other People
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.”
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”
IV: On Fame
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”
“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.”
V: On Work
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can— if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”
VI: On Obstacles
“You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can… But [if] there are external obstacles, … accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself – another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.”
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
VII: On the Shortness of Life
“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
“Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it. Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small – small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
VIII: On Purpose
“People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time – even when hard at work.”
“It would be wrong for anything to stand between you and attaining goodness – as a rational being and a citizen. Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem compatible with it – for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.”
“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”
More on Stoicism
If these lines have been helpful to you in any way, there are a myriad of other philosophers and resources to help you explore Stoicism. Aside from Marcus and the book Meditations, there are original texts from the Stoics as well as more modern-day takes on Stoicism to choose from. Here are a few:
- Video: The Stoics
- Video: Stoicism as a Philosophy for Ordinary Life
- Book: Ego Is The Enemy
- Book: The Discourses by Epictetus
- Blog: 5 Ancient Tactics for Modern Life
Memento Mori: A Conclusion
Since learning about Marcus, his meditations, and Stoicism, not a day has gone by in which I didn’t apply (or at least tried to apply) these lessons.
Stoicism, for me, has acted as a filter. Something happens, Murphy’s Law rolls into play, decisions need to be made, hurtful things are said, or I fail big-time. Usually, I let my emotions get the better of me – I get angry or I panic or I feel utterly powerless over my own life. But with Stoicism, I’ve learned to keep these emotions at bay and try to see things for what they truly are.
I try to see that whatever does happen, I can assure myself that I’m capable of handling it. If everything falls apart, I can still be thankful that I’m alive. If decisions need to be made, I’ll choose my principles over fame or glory. If somebody wrongs me or hurts me, I will not let them ruin my life. If I fail, no matter; I can try again.
Memento mori. Remember that you will die. By doing so, you’ll go a little farther to remember to do what makes you feel alive, to think without illusions, to live a life that does good to others – whether or not they remember you for it.