Marcus Aurelius and the Guiding Principles of Stoicism

In the year 165 CE, a black wave of death rose from the East and quickly spread across the globe faster than anyone could have ever imagined. They called it the Antonine Plague, after the reigning Roman emperor at the time, Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. Lasting throughout the time of his rule, this plague claimed upward of 18 million lives and nearly destroyed the Roman Empire that entire armies could barely scathe. But, it didn’t.

Under Marcus Aurelius’s rule, the empire thrived despite the economic crises, the numerous invasions and the gruelling pandemic. It is precisely during times of distress that true leaders are tested, and the Caesar rose to the occasion every single time. Aurelius was a philosopher before anything else. Regarded as the last of the Five Good Emperors of Ancient Rome, a term coined by Niccolo Machiavelli in the 15th century, it was his Stoic philosophy that differentiated him from his predecessors.

During the plague, he set his ego aside and broke the mold by surrounding himself with talented and experienced public servants instead of aristocrats and nobles. He listened to advice and empowered those around him to make decisions. He hired the best physicians to lead the battle against the disease decimating Roman populations and to give him the opportunity to focus on the growing economic crisis.

He canceled debts, sold imperial effects and possessions, and confiscated capital from Rome’s upper class to keep the economy afloat. At a time when fear infiltrated the empire, Marcus practiced self-control and inspired his people to remain calm. As if things couldn’t get any worse, late in his reign, Marcus received news that an old friend and former general Avidius Cassius had staged a rebellion and declared himself Caesar, in an attempt to overthrow him.

Marcus’s response was unusual considering the circumstances, but as disciplined and Stoic as he was ever known to be. Instead of getting angry and immediately setting out to destroy the man that threatened his empire, his family and his legacy, Marcus waited and gave the defector a chance to come to his senses. When he did not, Marcus demanded that Cassius be captured, but not kill him. In true Stoic fashion, he said concerning the matter:

“... forgive a man who has wronged one, to remain a friend to one who has transgressed friendship, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”

The last of the Five Good Emperors was a student of Stoic philosophy. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Seneca and Epictetus, as evident from his personal reflections during campaigning and administration. He didn’t get angry, he didn’t allow his emotions to guide his judgments and he didn’t despise his enemy. He acted firmly and justly, a posture that calmed an already nervous Empire in times of extreme tensions.

Stoicism provided Marcus Aurelius with a guideline to use when facing the stress of life. And as the leader of the most powerful empire in history, you know that his stressors were plenty. This guideline was compiled into Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’s personal diaries. The private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice on how to be wise in our decisions, just in our judgments, brave in our actions, temperate in all our doings. To practice self-control, discipline and modesty.

In short, Meditations is a timeless piece of Stoic philosophy that is as relevant today as it was in the days of Ancient Rome. It is a guide to the key principles of Stoicism from the philosopher king himself. One of the most prominent principles of Stoicism that Marcus Aurelius continuously reiterates in this piece of literature revolves around the dichotomy of control. Despite all his power, the Caesar of Rome constantly reminded himself that he couldn’t control all that happened around him, but he could always control how he responded to those things.

Flowing from this simple concept, there are five key and profound lessons we can learn from Marcus’s Meditations that are a testament to the practicality of Stoicism as a philosophy. And by understanding these lessons, we can lead healthier and more fulfilling lives, even millennia after Aurlius reigned. 

Perception: The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with misperception at will, like rounding the point. Serenity, total calm, safe anchorage.”

Before Marcus Aurelius’s time, Epictetus and Seneca both wrote vast amounts on the power of perception. It is no wonder then that Aurelius echoed these thoughts as it is one of the most essential tenets of Stoicism. Our perceptions influence all that we experience. Your car may not start before your important meeting, or your boss may not give you the promotion you think you deserve. 

Just like Marcus had a choice when the plague hit, you also have a choice to make whenever you are facing a troubling situation. You can choose to feel angry, scorned, depressed or defeated, which will accomplish nothing. Or you can train your perception to not be influenced by what is outside of your control. It’s a form of self-discipline that places the quality of your life in your hands instead of in the hands of other people or situations.

Marcus’s entire reign rested on this guiding principle. As a formidable leader, he understood the power he had, and always separated his perceptions from his emotions. He faced invasions from Germanic tribes and internal uprisings within his kingdom, but he knew he could not alter these situations to his favor. His true power came from within, from how he perceived these grievous situations.

So instead of reacting rashly, he didn’t allow these horrible negative events to affect him. Instead, he seized his own mind and was able to make just decisions that were void of any emotional attachment, even in the face of the most troubling situations. 

Turn the other cheek: To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.”

When someone despises us, the easy thing to do is to despise them back. But what would that accomplish? When dealing with Cassius’s rebellion, it would have been easy for Marcus to order his troops to seize and brutally murder him for his insurgence. To use him as a message to all who dare attempt to take his crown. Instead, he was compassionate and chose to forgive him.

People will never meet our expectations, so instead of letting their behavior evoke our emotions, it’s more prudent to resort back to what is in our control, which is being virtuous, a better Stoic and a better human.

View obstacles as an opportunity: Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.”

Before anything, the Stoics were realists. They understood life’s challenges but instead of shying away from them, they embraced them. The truth is that struggle is an essential part of life. It builds character, develops resilience and ultimately leads to success. Again this principle is centered around perception.

We can either perceive an obstacle as a hindrance to our progress, a knockout punch that we’ll never be able to recover from, or a virtue, a test of our ability to respond to adversity. It would be foolish to go through life avoiding struggle and conflict. Instead, we should welcome them as an opportunity to strengthen our character. The obstacle is never in the way. The obstacle IS the way.

Amor Fati (Love your Fate): Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.

Marcus Aurelius believed that the formula for human greatness is to accept our fate no matter what it is. This notion is deeply rooted in Stoic philosophy. Whatever happens to you, you must love it, for it is your fate. Epictetus, who as a bond servant faced countless adversities throughout his life but still embraced his destiny without complaining. 

He was tortured by a master who twisted his leg and broke it, permanently crippling him. Instead of spending the rest of his life feeling remorseful for himself, Epictetus took control of his mind instead and said: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

The true testament to being a Stoic is wanting nothing to be different, not better, or worse. The strength of a person is in accepting what the Universe has in store for you and not resisting it. 

Memento Mori (Remember that you will die). You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

No one understood their destiny and loved their fate more than Seneca. In 59 CE, Rome was ruled by an insecure and unjust emperor, Nero. He was an uncaring dictator who spared no one from his wrath, including his own mother and sister. After a failed attempt on his life, Nero gathered all the suspected conspirators and either banished or executed them. Seneca was wrongly accused as being one of those plotting against Nero’s life. 

And even though he had served as his leading adviser, Nero did not spare him and ordered him to take his own life. Instead of fighting the hand that fate had dealt him, Seneca not only accepted his fate but was Stoic to the final minute of his existence. As he famously said, “What need is there to weep over parts of life, when the whole of it calls for tears?”

Seneca then cut the veins in his arms and bled to death. Despite being one of the most powerful men in the world, Marcus Aurelius always reflected on the fleetness of his life. Anyone in his position could very easily get drunk on power, but he reminded himself all the time of all those who have come and gone, who have left behind nothing of the power they ever so greedily accumulated throughout their lives.

In Meditations, Marcus thinks of mortality as an inspiration to live his best life and let go of trivial things. He did not see death as morbid, but rather as a motivator to live a life of virtue and gratitude for the time we have. Marcus Aurelius led a Roman Empire that went through both hardship and prosperity. He was criticized and praised, loved and hated, but through it all, he always reminded himself of the teachings of Stoicism and the dichotomy of control.

There are things in our control and others that are not. Which ones will you focus on? If we can learn to emulate Marcus’s lessons by mastering our perceptions, accepting others for who they are, embracing the inevitable challenges as opportunities for growth, loving our fate and finally accepting our mortality, then we can truly live a virtuous life, just like that of the philosopher king himself.

“Waste no time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

                                                                            Marcus Aurelius