Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, 121 – 180 AD) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180. He ruled with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, until his brother’s death in 169, and then with his son, Commodus, from 177 to 180.
Aurelius was the last of the rulers traditionally known as the Five Good Emperors. He was a practitioner of Stoicism, acquiring the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime. His personal philosophical writings, Meditations, or ‘Things to Oneself’ are a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy and have been seen as one of the greatest works of philosophy.
In popular culture, he was portrayed by Richard Harris, in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster, ‘Gladiator‘.
Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics in which, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by using our minds, our logic, to understand the world around us, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.
While on campaign between 170 and 180, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in common Greek, the style of which is simplified and straightforward, reflecting the Emperor’s stoic perspective; the work not of a man of nobility but of a man among other men.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.
A central theme to Meditations is the importance of analyzing one’s judgment of self and others and the development of a cosmic perspective:
Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.
He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time.
When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.
Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “being a good man”.
If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.
His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him.
It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.
An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with existence allowing one to rise above faulty perceptions of “good” and “bad.” Things out of your control like fame and health are irrelevant and neither good nor bad.
When you have assumed these names – good, modest, truthful, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous – take care that you do not change these names; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them.
The historian Herodian wrote,
Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.
Iain King concludes that Marcus Aurelius’ legacy is tragic, because the emperor’s,
..stoic philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.
His death in 180 is seen as an end to the Pax Romana. The increasing instability in the West that followed has traditionally been seen as the beginning of the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.
A brief summary of Stoic thought is captured here in this video by The School of Life: