Marcus Aurelius was a rare thing: an emperor and a philosopher. Over the course of his ruling at the head of Rome he reunited an empire divided due to the betrayal of Avidius Cassius, fended off numerous enemies such as the Goths and Sarmatians, and created the capital of Constantinople, which would go on to become the Byzantine empire.
And while his effect as an emperor has been widely lauded, his true contribution to humankind can be found in his enduring legacy as a philosopher. His humble notebook of scribblings, Meditations, has gone on to be read continuously over the last 2,000 years, and remains a bestseller to this day.
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, a devotee of a lineage of philosophers who believed that human beings can and should be the masters of themselves and their emotions. For the Stoics, philosophy was practical, not theoretical. For the Stoics, the only thing worth wanting was good character. Character, they said, is destiny.
Their philosophy could be summed up as this: Nothing that happens to you is good or bad except in how it effects your character. In other words, what determines your happiness and the over-all shape and quality of your life is simply your character. Injury? Pain? Failure? Loss? Death? None of them are evils in and of themselves, except in how they affect your character, which is what really determines who, and how happy, you will be in the long term.
If that sounds tough-minded, it’s meant to be. Some have called Stoicism “warrior philosophy”, and it has always been popular with soldiers, firefighters, servants of humanity, and others who face pain and trauma on a daily basis. Given this, here are 7 gems from our leathery sage. Enjoy.
1) “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Marcus is often concerned with telling himself to spend less time thinking or reading and more time doing what his thoughts and books have dictated for him. Sound familiar? For Marcus, like the rest of the Stoics, the key is practice, not theory.
2) “The best revenge is to be unlike the one who injured you.”
What is the best way to respond to anger, pride, injustice, or treachery? Not with more of the same. The sage rises above by preserving their true good– their character, and refusing to mirror the one who attacks them.
3) “Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last– without anxiety, without apathy, without pretence.”
Marcus very frequently meditates on death, a practice also recommended by the sages of the world’s religions. The purpose is not to be morbid and certainly not to get depressed, but the opposite: to seize the day. As Marcus said: “Do not be afraid to die: be afraid to never have truly lived.”
4) In the fight for the good life many of Marcus’ quotes urge himself to keep standing up, keep choosing what’s right, and keep battling for his own transformation. Never despair: “How shameful is it that, in this life, when your body has not given up the struggle, your soul should do so first.”
5) “If anyone despises me, that is their problem. My only concern is not doing anything worthy of contempt.”
Here Marcus combines the focus on one’s own character with the advice not to be concerned with other peoples negative, hateful judgements. This is key for anyone who wants to do real work in the world.
Marcus echoes this in another quote: “It amazes me that everyone values themselves more highly than anyone else, yet values other’s opinions of them above their own.” Marcus was not just concerned with his own inner peace, however:
6) “Take your delight and your rest in one thing alone: to pass from one action that serves the good of your fellows to the next, keeping God in your thoughts.”
Marcus believed that the world was an ordered, interconnected whole where every being and event was purposeful and good for the whole. He believed that just as the parts of nature work together and are meant to serve each other, so are human beings meant to work together and serve each other. The intelligence that orders everything Marcus called “God”. Marcus’ advice here is clear: keep your mind in the present, focusing on the task at hand for the good of the world, acting with reverence for the sparkling intelligence at the heart of all things.
7) Lastly, says Marcus, wherever you are: love. “Adapt yourself to the circumstances in which your lot has cast you; and love those among whom your lot has fallen, and love them truly with your heart.”