Marcus Aurelius was a Roman philosopher born in Rome in 121 AD. Growing up studying Stoic philosophy, he became the Emperor of Rome and as such was considered a “philosopher king.” He was inspired by Epictetus, who believed that philosophy should be applied to every day life. During his campaigns in central Europe, he wrote down his thoughts in what are known as his Meditations. Marcus believed that in a world of constant change, one must embrace the present. As a Stoic, he saw the world as being governed by divine reason, and he saw man’s goal as being in harmony with nature. He considered death a part of life, and therefore said that “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
Growing up as a student of rhetoric (public speaking), Marcus became interested in Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy. As the Emperor of Rome, he used his Stoic philosophy to remain calm during the stresses of war and to act virtuously, and for this reason he became known as a philosopher king. He was revered as one of the “Five Good Emperors” who “gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”
Marcus used his personal notebook to critically evaluate his own thoughts. Through the act of writing, as well as performing other philosophical exercises, he strived to cultivate good character by “dying his soul,” in order to become a wise person (sophos). As a Stoic, Marcus believed that everything in the world is interconnected, ordered by divine reason. As human beings, we should strive to be in harmony with the universe. Marcus explains that things are neither good nor evil, but that as humans we make value judgments. It is therefore our thoughts, not things themselves, which cause us to be happy or not. If we can think about things properly and control our desires, proper action will follow, and then we will be able to achieve happiness.
Marcus sees the world as constantly changing. “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place.” For this reason, Marcus explains that we must embrace the present. He explains, “When thou art above measure angry, bethink thee how momentary is a man’s life.” For Marcus, it is important not to be paralyzed by the fear of death, since death is a natural part of life. He explains, “Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh.” He explains, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
Marcus encourages us to live our lives to the fullest. He explains, “How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks.” Instead, he says “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Marcus explains, “If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” The best revenge “is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” He exclaims, “Let men see, let them know, a real man, who lives as he was meant to live.” When facing adversity, rather than complaining, one should say “To bear this worthily is good fortune.”
As a Stoic, Marcus recognizes that in a world where everything is constantly changing, the only thing one truly has control of his thoughts. He explains, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” He says that as humans, “We are too much accustomed to attribute to a single cause that which is the product of several, and the majority of our controversies come from that.” Marcus explains, “The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.” Marcus believes we should live in harmony with each other, and with the world. He says that “Men exist for the sake of one another” and that “He who lives in harmony with himself, lives in harmony with the universe.”
By thinking properly, and understanding our fate in the universe, we can achieve happiness. Marcus explains “Whatever the universal nature assigns to any man at any time is for the good of that man at that time.” He therefore writes, “Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live.” In this way, Marcus uses his Stoic philosophy to understand the world and how best to live in it.
Marcus Aurelius represents the commitment to duty and personal virtue embraced by the Roman Stoic philosophers. As an Emperor, he did his best to act in accordance with his philosophic principles. His Meditations shows that philosophy is more than just abstract theorizing, it is a path for conducting one’s life and thoughts. The Meditations would become a favorite of the Prussian King Frederick the Great, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, and the poet Goethe and Marcus’ philosophy would influence developments in the philosophical movement known as Neoplatonism.