“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.” – Marcus Aurelius (quote)

What were Marcus Aurelius’ rules for life? His self-help classic has the answers
Despite being written for his eyes only, the philosopher emperor’s private journal, Meditations, has now been read by millions seeking his stoic wisdom and life lessons.

The second-century A.D. world of Emperor Marcus Aurelius was in shambles. A great plague ravaged western Europe, as he embarked on a long and bloody war against the Germanic tribes along the Danube frontier. Faced with these woes, along with old age and thoughts of death, the emperor sought comfort in philosophy.

Throughout his life, notably at odd moments during the military campaign, he jotted down his personal struggles, philosophical beliefs, and insights about being a better ruler and a person. Out of this sincere expression of introspection came 12 books contemplating life and the human condition. In total this collection is called Meditations.

Born in A.D. 121 into an aristocratic family in Rome, Marcus Aurelius received an excellent education in rhetoric and philosophy. He studied Greek and quoted freely from Homer and Euripides. Perhaps that’s why he wrote his Meditations in Greek rather than Latin, the Roman Empire’s official language.

As a youth, he also became deeply interested in philosophy, particularly Stoicism, a school of thought that flourished in antiquity. One of its key tenets emphasizes the development of inner strength and the acceptance of things beyond one’s control. Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C., Stoicism grew to become one of the leading philosophies of the ancient world.

It flourished in ancient Rome, counting Cicero among its leading scholars (and a good source of information on Stoicism in Rome). Epictetus, a formerly enslaved Greek, became a highly influential Stoic philosopher studied by Marcus Aurelius. In fact, Meditations bears some resemblance to Epictetus’s collection of moral precepts, called Enchiridion (Manual). But Marcus Aurelius’s work adds his own original voice to Stoicism’s philosophical tradition. He gravitated to the school of thought and came to believe that perception is the basis of true knowledge. Happiness could be found through the practice of virtue and being guided at all times by reason in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

The work starts as a kind of reckoning in which Marcus Aurelius gives thanks to all those who positively influenced him throughout his life. For example, he credits his tutors for keeping him from superstition and vice and turning him toward a more austere and virtuous life. The most important of these tutors, he remembers, was Quintus Junius Rusticus, who corrected his impetuous character and introduced him to the Stoic philosophers.

Marcus Aurelius also reminisces about his life at the court in Rome, where he arrived at age 17. His adoptive father, then emperor Antoninus Pius, maintained a modest lifestyle, and so the young Marcus Aurelius was not thrust into a world of sumptuous clothes and luxurious living; he didn’t even have a personal guard. The future emperor admired the dedication with which his adoptive father managed the empire and his calm but decisive personality.

Marcus Aurelius doesn’t reflect directly about his life as an emperor, he touches on important related topics, including the weight of his responsibilities and the need to uphold justice. He recognizes that he must make decisions in the best interest of the people he governs. He recognizes that power can be a burden and a temptation, emphasizing the importance of avoiding arrogance and maintaining humility in the face of authority. He also offers insights on how to cope with difficult situations, maintain inner tranquility, and remain focused on one’s purpose in the face of obstacles. “No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it.”

He tries to remain calm at all times and not bother with what his neighbor will say or think about him. As he reminds himself: “It never ceases to amaze me: We all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own.” “[R]emain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will … The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.” “Just pay attention, and resolve to live up to your own expectations.”

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (26 April 121 – 17 March 180) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD and a Stoic philosopher. He was a member of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty, the last of the rulers later known as the Five Good Emperors and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace, calm, and stability for the Roman Empire lasting from 27 BC to 180 AD. He served as Roman consul in 140, 145, and 161. Meditations, the writings of “the philosopher” – as contemporary biographers called Marcus – are a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy. These writings have been praised by fellow writers, philosophers, monarchs, and politicians centuries after his death.

Marcus Aurelius is known as the “Philosopher King,” the last of Rome’s “Five Good Emperors.” The latter title, assigned by Machiavelli, refers to five leaders who wisely sought out suitable heirs, rather than automatically naming their own offspring. Aurelius reigned from 161 CE to 180 CE, the final Emperor of the Pax Romana (Roman peace). He led the Roman people through the utter devastation brought on by the Antonine plague, the Parthian War and ongoing battles with the German tribes. He was well-loved by the people.

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them. Think constantly on the changes of the elements into each other, for such thoughts wash away the dust of earthly life.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”
“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.”
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”
“[I have learned] To read with diligence; not to rest satisfied with a light and superficial knowledge, nor quickly to assent to things commonly spoken of.”
“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.”
“Life is short — the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”


Image courtesy thefamouspeople.com

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