Saturday, January 1, 2022

Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher-Emperor

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 10 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was not just "any old writer": he was a Roman Emperor, and a fairly successful one by most accounts: he was the last of the "Five Good Emperors," so-called because almost all of those who followed after him were so bad. He lived from 121 to 180, and ruled from 161 until his death.

Though busy leading the empire, Marcus took time to write down his thoughts, often, it is believed, while he was out in the field on a military campaign: in those days, a king was also expected to be a general and warrior.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that says one should live a good life in accordance with nature, aligning one's decisions with the way things are. To be so aligned was considered "virtue." The modern meaning of "stoic," which is to be unmoved by joy or (especially) grief, and to accept whatever happens with equanimity, comes from this idea.

The book that we call Meditations was actually Marcus's private journal; the title was added much later (and in fact it has had several, including Treatise to Himself). There is no indication that he thought it would be seen by others, let alone published. So keep in mind that in the following selections from the Meditations, when Marcus says you, he is addressing himself, reminding himself of how to behave.

  • If you are troubled by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs you, but your own attitude toward it. And it is in your power to change this attitude now…. Is a cucumber bitter? Throw it away. Are there briars in the road? Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, "And why were such things made in the world?"
  • Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands firm while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say [when bad things happen], "How unlucky that this should happen to me!" Not at all! Say instead, "How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen. The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint."
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.

Let me encourage you to find a copy of the Meditations and dip into it regularly.

Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (detail; 1844) by Eugene Delacroix


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. absorbed it
  2. aligned
  3. briars
  4. capitulation
  5. churning
  6. equanimity
  7. implicate
  8. in accordance with
  9. lulled
  10. meddling
  11. obstruct
  12. promontory
  13. surly
  14. unjust
  15. virtue
  1. soothed; quieted
  2. giving up; surrendering
  3. plants with sharp thorns
  4. following along with; conforming to
  5. mental or emotional stability in a time of stress
  6. interfering (with)
  7. swirling; agitated
  8. get in the way of; prevent
  9. accepted it; taken it in
  10. unfair
  11. moral excellence; goodness; righteousness
  12. brought into agreement; lined up (with)
  13. a high point of land projecting into the sea
  14. involve; include (usually in a negative way)
  15. rude; bad-tempered; unfriendly

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. How do we know Marcus Aurelius was a successful ruler?
  2. Where was Marcus during much of the time he wrote the Meditations?
  3. What is the basic idea of Stoicism?
  4. Did Marcus call his book Meditations?
  5. To whom did Marcus address his work?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Do you think it would be easy to accept the Stoic point of view, accepting all things as they are? Why or why not?
  2. Marcus was an emperor. Does it surprise you that he would be so concerned about being a good person? Why or why not?
  3. If someone found a journal with your private thoughts, would you want it to be published? If so, what title do you think it should have? If not, why not?

1 comment:


    Vocabulary: 1. I; 2. L; 3. C; 4. B; 5. G; 6. E; 7. N; 8. D; 9. A; 10. F; 11. H; 12. M; 13. O; 14. J; 15. K

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. Marcus was one of what history calls the "Five Good Emperors."
    2. Marcus was out in the field on a military campaign when he wrote much of the Meditations.
    3. Stoicism says that we should learn to accept things the way they are, good or bad.
    4. No, Marcus didn't call his book *Meditations. He wrote it as a private journal; the name Meditations was added later.
    5. Meditations was written as reminders to himself.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").