The Philosopher King
Emperor by profession and philosopher by way of life, Marcus Aurelius was an influential figure in second-century Rome.1 Aurelius searched for answers for metaphysical and ethical questions, such as: how can we achieve happiness?; how can I be a good person?; what is my purpose? 2
We have been able to gain insight into his reflections on these topics through his only – but incredibly well known – published text, Meditations. As Meditations is made up of compiled notes and personal ruminations, the text gives readers a direct insight into the brilliant mind of the ancient Roman philosopher. The quotes and passages that make up Meditations divulge his stoic philosophy and can help guide us down a path towards happiness and inner peace.
Sometimes referred to as the “most quotable philosopher” due to his eloquent writing style that sparked vivid imagery, and one-liners that sticks in people’s mind, Aurelius’s philosophies continue to resonate with us today.1
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy movement that first emerged during the Hellenistic period (323 BC to 31 BC).4 Stoicism suggests that philosophy is a way of living a virtuous life, not just an academic discipline, and that philosophy is the only pursuit that actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Little things that occupy people’s daily life are irrelevant to our happiness. According to stoicism, wealth, reputation, or enjoyment do not actually contribute to a happy life; similarly, illness, poverty, or pain do not detract from our happy life.1 Only what makes us virtuous makes us happy, while vice is the thief of our happiness.
Though unfamiliar today, stoic philosophy was still popular during Aurelius’s time. Aurelius recognized that it was not easy to live one’s life as a philosopher, as it required a great deal of dedication, but believed that it was a worthy pursuit. Like many stoic philosophers, Aurelius had a binary view on good and evil, which is to say it was very black and white. What was virtuous was anything that made someone just, temperate, courageous, and free, and what was bad were things that made them the contrary. 1 What allowed someone to have those virtuous characteristics was their pursuit of philosophy in both a practical and philosophical way, which would enable them to live in agreement with nature. That is because pursuing philosophy helped people understand the ‘true’ nature of things – a common example is philosophy’s inquiry into what a soul is.
Since things like pain and pleasure do not influence our happiness, Aurelius suggested that people needed to reframe their thoughts surrounding what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If it doesn’t contribute to overall happiness, it is neither good nor bad. He writes in Meditations, “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.” 3
Aurelius believed that people should stop focusing on these things and instead examine whether their actions are contributing to one’s own virtue. An action is virtuous when it is done because of understanding, which is where philosophy as a way of life comes in.1 Philosophy gives someone a stable cognitive state that allows them to see what is just and virtuous and act accordingly. Philosophy enables someone to be rational, which for stoicism, is to live in accordance with nature.
Happiness as a State of Mind
One reason why Aurelius’s stoic advice focused on changing one’s mindset is because although we cannot always control what happens to us, we can control how we feel about it and how we react to it. As he writes in Meditations, “you have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 3 He further elaborates that “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
The idea that happiness is a mindset rather than something acquired through wealth, pleasure, or material things is supported by the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill suggests that our happiness levels tend to remain at a relatively neutral level because we quickly adapt to events that make us happy or things that make us sad. The hedonic treadmill stipulates that something we think might make us happy (like buying a new car) will only make us happier for a fleeting moment, and that similarly, something we think might make us sad – like receiving a bad grade – will only make us upset for a short amount of time.
Aurelius would say that our happiness tends to be indifferent to these things, as only being virtuous can truly contribute to lasting happiness. Being a good person is under our own control, so we should focus on that endeavor. We must turn inwards, to our souls, or to our “inner citadel” as he called it in Meditations. Living from this space will give someone a sense of peace and freedom as they will realize they have the freedom to shape their life by being in control of their thoughts.2
Life is bound to throw challenges your way, but how you respond to those challenges is what will determine whether you are a happy person. Aurelius suggested that obstacles actually provide us with the greatest opportunity to practice our virtue, as they test our patience and give us an opportunity to respond in a positive way. 5 He wrote, “what stands in the way becomes the way.” 2 It is by turning inwards and not allowing these adversities to get to you that allows one to be stoic. The way that other people behave or treat you is out of your control, but if you are at peace with yourself, these people shouldn’t negatively impact you.
Aurelius also suggested that we should focus on the virtues that we already have; we might not embody every single positive characteristic, but we shouldn’t be overly critical of ourselves for what we don’t have. We should focus on the virtues we do have and ensure to practice those. 6
Focusing on what we do have is another practice that Aurelius was adamant about. He wrote in Meditations, “when you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.” 3 Instead of worrying about things that could go wrong, or things we don’t have, we should be in the present moment and enjoy what life has to offer. He suggested that if we did everything as if it was the last thing we would do in our lives, we would find it easier not to let emotions cloud our rationality. 6
Marcus Aurelius (in full Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was born on April 26, 121 AD, in Rome.7 His family was very prestigious: his grandfather was the consul and prefect of Rome, his aunt was married to a man who was to be the next emperor, and his grandmother was set to inherit a fortune from her wealthy family.7 Aurelius was well set up for his life as an influential and powerful man, although his path towards becoming emperor was based more on luck than anything else.
At the age of 15, in 136 AD, Aurelius got engaged to Ceionia Fabia, the daughter of Commodus who had just been named as the emperor’s successor. However, a couple of years later, Commodus died and the engagement was called off. Rome’s current emperor, Hadrian, had to name another successor and this time he chose Aurelius’s aunt’s husband, Titus, so long as he adopted Marcus and Commodus’ son, Antonius. The two would then succeed Commodus and become joint emperors.7
Although Aurelius knew he would become emperor at 17, he had a long time to wait until Titus would hand over the reins. During this time, Aurelius became interested in stoic philosophy thanks to his teacher Fronto, who was the main society literary figure of his age. Aurelius would maintain a close friendship with his teacher Fronto throughout his lifetime, and the letters between the two are the only surviving love letters (it is unknown whether they were love letters in a romantic sense) from antiquity.8
Aurelius was particularly taken by Epictetus, a Greek stoic philosopher, after his friend recommended his work.1 Epictetus’ writing influenced Aurelius to commit a lifetime to pursuing philosophical endeavors. Simultaneously, he was Titus’ apprentice, and was learning the business and governmental side of things to prepare him to become emperor.7 Although Aurelius does not thank him directly in Meditations, it is likely that Aurelius would also have been influenced by Seneca, a prominent stoic philosopher.
He married his cousin in 145 AD (this was common practice in ancient Rome), Annia Galeria Faustina. He was given the responsibilities of consul alongside his adopted brother. In 161, Commodus died, making Aurelius and Autonis co-emperors. It was the first time that Rome had co-emperors, although it was cut short as Antonius died eight years later. 6 Aurelius’s reign was marked by military conflict, as Rome experienced attacks from Germany, rebellions in Italy and Egypt, as well as by a plague that swept Italy and took many lives.1 Despite all these hardships, Aurelius’s pursuit of stoicism allowed him not to let these terrible events impact his inner peace. In fact, it is believed that many of the notes that later were published in Meditations were written while Aurelius was organizing military campaigns.1
Even with all the chaos and hardship Aurelius faced during his time as emperor, he is considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors”. While the five good emperors reigned, Rome enjoyed absolute power and was guided by virtue. The five good emperors had become emperors due to appointed succession rather than by birthright, which might have pushed them to want to prove themselves as virtuous leaders.6 Aurelius’s successor did not follow suit; when he died in 180, one of his sons, Commodus, became emperor. Commodus’s reign marks the end of Rome’s golden era, as although he maintained a level of peace in Rome, his own behavior did not follow the same virtuous principles that his father had maintained.7
Insights from the Most Quotable Philosopher
For Aurelius, the stoic philosopher, “perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense.” He urges us to “remember that very little is needed to make a happy life.”3
Aurelius always professed that people should only concern themselves with what they can control. This philosophy means that other people’s behavior should not cause you to deviate from your virtuous path. He wrote, “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.”3
He believed that people’s criticisms of you say more about the kind of person that they are than the kind of person you are. He states in Meditations, “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.” 3
Aurelius also believed that people should focus on the present. He advises, “do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” The future is something outside of our control, so we shouldn’t worry about it. As he states, “there is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”3
Focusing on the present also allows you to focus on what you do have. He wrote, “do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”3
Ultimately, he urged people to just be good. He wrote in Meditations, “do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying… or busy with other assignments… Look inward. Don’t let the true nature of anything elude you… 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 going back to it.”3
Where Can We Learn More?
Meditations is Aurelius’s only known published work. Split into twelve parts, the text incorporates Aurelius’s personal notes and scribbles. A physical copy can be purchased here, or you can listen to an audiobook.
You can also listen to The History of Philosophy’s podcast episode about Aurelius, titled “The Philosopher King: Marcus Aurelius”. The podcast hosts explore Aurelius’s life as well as his stoic philosophy. Another podcast dedicated to discussing all matters stoicism, The Daily Stoic, also has an episode that revolves around Aurelius. Lastly, BBC’s podcast host Melvyn Bragg talks about Aurelius’s life and philosophies with guests in this podcast.
A number of books have also been written about Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed by William Stephens provides an introduction to Aurelius suitable for those not well versed in philosophy. After getting a grasp on the basics, you might turn to Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a book that uncovers deeper hidden meanings from Aurelius’s Meditations. If you are more interested in who Aurelius the manwas, you might want to check out Anthony Birley’s biography.
- Kamtekar, R. (2010, November 29). Marcus Aurelius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marcus-aurelius/#LifWor
- Marcus Aurelius: Debts and lessons. (2019, November 9). Farnam Street. https://fs.blog/2014/08/marcus-aurelius-debts-and-lessons/
- Marcus Aurelius Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/17212.Marcus_Aurelius
- Baltzly, D. (2018, April 10). Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/#Phil
- Gregoire, C. (2014, March 29). Marcus Aurelius and the Key to Happiness. DailyGood: News That Inspires. https://www.dailygood.org/story/680/marcus-aurelius-and-the-key-to-happiness/
- Holiday, R., & Hanselman, S. (2020, August 31). Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor. Daily Stoic. https://dailystoic.com/marcus-aurelius/
- Crook, J. A. (1998, July 20). Marcus Aurelius. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marcus-Aurelius-Roman-emperor
- Marcus Aurelius. (2001, October 2). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Aurelius#Legacy_and_reputation