Plato, in The Republic, wrote that “states will never be happy until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers.” Although this idea is not without controversy, Marcus Aurelius provides perhaps the historical high bar of a ruler who thought, and a thinker who ruled, as Roman emperor from 161-180 CE.
His Meditations, a book named and published posthumously, are Marcus’ private journals. While he likely did not intend these to be published, they survive as a great example of the Stoic philosophy in practice. Here is an individual under the burden of heavy responsibility, striving consciously to be a be a good ruler and a good person.
Throughout the Meditations‘ twelve books, Marcus reflects on self-improvement, temperance, and acceptance. He also inadvertently provides the kinds of platitudes one might find find on fridge magnets. Considering how universal his themes of reflection, self-awareness, and perspective are, they are surely worthy of contemplation during a midnight snack raid as any other time.
Stoics have feelings, too
Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism as a philosophy does not embody an unfeeling, stiff-upper-lip approach to life. While there is a degree of somewhat Zen-like acceptance required, Stoics are very much in the realm of feeling, and of acknowledging emotions honestly. It’s the choice of what you do with them that matters.
In Marcus’ day, Stoicism and Epicureanism were the two main intellectual ideas in Rome. Like Epicureans, Stoics accepted the possibility of Atomism, advocated alignment with nature, and viewed the inevitability of death as something to accept “in a cheerful spirit.” However, Stoics also believed in some form of divine providence guiding the affairs of nature and life, where Epicureans rejected the idea of a grand design.
The Stoics advocate for living in the present, guided by nature’s wisdom and strong ethical principles, the latter of which hearkens back to the Greeks. Like the Platonists, Stoics aim to live virtuously, aligned with nature and the divine, and cultivating the self to benefit society; like the Aristotelians, they champion civic virtue, community, and moderation.
It is exactly what you think
It is the power of the mind to create reality, and in doing so, it should ever attempt to align with nature and the divine. Thus, it is important to cultivate the mind, for nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
One should learn to focus, to winnow one’s thoughts to that which one can control, and accept what one cannot. Everything else is merely a distraction. One should also learn to be dispassionate, for attachments can cause pain and poor outcomes, but “the mind without passions is a fortress.”
Fittingly, the first book of Meditations is composed of gratitides to those who have shaped Marcus’ values in life. Indeed, who doesn’t feel better after a sustained gratitude practice, and what better place to lead the people from?
Mind over matter
But what should a person focus on, given everything we feel we might control, or impact? Marcus advocates undertaking nothing at random, or with out a purpose, and for any reason but the common good.
Marcus was community-minded, noting that “what injures the hive injures the bee.” He reminds himself that he is “a single limb of a larger body – a rational one,” foreshadowing the idea of the Body of Christ, though the nascent church was not yet a force in shaping Rome in Marcus’ day.
Logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us, “and it’s value to us and to the world,” is uniquely conducive to spiritual growth. It empowers us to see patterns and perspectives with detachment. Evil, for instance, is “the same old thing,” repeating itself across the world and all time.
Yet evil causes harm to neither the world nor the victim: “only one person is harmed by it – and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to.”
Detachment allows us not to take things personally. From there, it is easier to see that “nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will.”
One with nature
Marcus writes of three relationships: with the body you inhabit; with the divine, the cause of everything in all things; and with the people around you.
Being mindful of one’s small place in the vastness of space and time helps us better cultivate these relationships. A person controls their relationship with self, and their actions toward others. Everything else is the providence of Providence. And Providence has no reason to do evil.
Indeed, everything that proceeds from nature occurs for the good of the world, and sensitivity to nature allows a tireless source of pleasure, for nature is truth. There is pain in straying from the path of truth, so one should find a way to harmonize with nature.
By extension, self-knowledge and self-acceptance allow a person to follow the path nature intended for them. For, after all, “whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: Your own existence and the things which happen to you.”
Love what you do
While Marcus was not in the business of giving career advice, he reminds himself to “love the discipline you know, and let it support you. Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life – no one’s master and no one’s slave.”
This belies a great trust in the divine, and in the divine’s design of each individual to fulfill, and be supported by, a function authentic to each person. “Follow your own nature,” he writes, “and follow Nature – along the road they share.” It is the auspices of Providence to work out the details; one merely needs to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Change is inevitable, in nature, and in life – so, how do you choose to view change? Marcus advises that nothing is good nor bad but thinking makes it so. Release your judgments, accept that the present is all that there is, and everything will be just fine.
Since time is immaterial, and everyone meets the same inevitable end, one should make the most of each moment. After all, “disturbance comes only from within – from our perceptions.” Change your perceptions, and you will change your life.
All the people…so many people
In his job as Emperor, Marcus faced a degree of tedium that included hearing the supplications of endless citizens. He counsels himself patience and decency toward these often selfish, ignorant, and smelly people.
For though he must respond to their concerns, he need only take on personally what affects the common good. Moreover, the faults of others are inescapable, so better to focus on escaping your own.
When harmed by another, one ought to contemplate “what good or harm they thought would come of it.” That understanding, that empathy, frees a person from anger and outrage – which only compound the harm. Rather than a dish served cold, “the best revenge is not to be like that.”
Importantly, Marcus notes that, “there is nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being – and a man.”
This note to self is as relevant today as it was in the Emperor’s private journal 2,000 years ago.
Dealing with endless people and the business of running an empire would make the best of people want to get away from it all. Marcus reminds us that people can do so anytime they like, “by going within.” Outward escapes mean little when “the soul is the most peaceful place one can go.”
One must, of course, be at peace with one’s self in order to find peace within. There is “no greater harmony” than accepting destiny. Focusing the mind dispenses is of the needs it imagines for itself. Desire, envy, lack, and their ilk are illusions which destroy one’s sense of ease and plenty.
Modern life can make us feel the need to be increasingly busy even as we are less fulfilled; the hamster wheel seems to turn ever-faster. Marcus counsels the opposite: stop being so busy; do less in order to find tranquility; and ask at every moment whether what you are doing is necessary.
Conscious living and self acceptance can seem intimidating, even frightening. But it is equally liberating as fears and illusions drop away, and our essential self shines forth with its unique gifts and earthly purpose. Then you can truly “give yourself a gift,” as Marcus writes: “the present moment.”
Would that more rulers were so philosophically enlightened.