Lessons from an Emperor


Marcus Aurelius was the ruler of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. His diary, Meditations, is an unprecedented glimpse into the private thoughts of the most public, powerful figure of the time. Influenced by Epictetus, Plato, and Socrates, Marcus Aurelius tries to expound his own philosophy of life: Man is a social and rational animal, and must act in accordance with his nature if he would live a virtuous, valuable life.

First, what would Marcus Aurelius say to John Marcher of Henry James‘s The Beast in the Jungle? (See previous post)

John Marcher, we recall, was consumed by his Fate. He and May Bartram speculated maddeningly about what it would be, and when they weren’t speculating, sat in watch for Fate’s unfolding, forsaking the present in waiting for the future. Then, when the special event came and passed without John Marcher realizing it, he spun around and traded the present for the past, speculating on what it could have been.

That Marcus Aurelius, too, believed in Fate is quite clear in his Meditations, and it is not surprising given the prevalence of the idea in ancient Greek and Roman thought. At one point he writes,

Has anything happened to you? Well, out of the universe from the beginning everything that happens has been apportioned and spun out to you.

and again,

that which happens to every man is fixed in a manner for him suitable to his destiny.

Marcus Aurelius, however, has a different perspective than Marcher (but maybe not Henry James) on how an individual should posture themselves in relation to their Fate. He would undoubtedly condemn John Marcher for sacrificing the present for the vaporous future and the past, trading reality for unreality.

Throughout his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius affirms that the present moment is all that, in truth, exists; therefore, he who dies young and he who dies old both lose the same thing: the present moment. They have nothing else to lose. Past and Future are only imaginary abstractions from the Present, and therefore should be subservient to it, not superior.

How then would Marcus Aurelius instruct John Marcher? He would likely tell him,

Do not let the future disturb you, for you will arrive there, if you arrive, with the same reason you now apply to the present.

And more,

Do not disturb yourself by thinking of the whole of your life. Do not let your thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles that you may expect to befall you: but on every occasion ask yourself, What is there in this that is intolerable and past bearing? For you will be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains you, but only the present.

This, however, is only one of the lessons that Meditations offers. Here are a few more of note:

Humans are social and intellectual animals, and are obligated to act according to this dual nature. 

Marcus Aurelius is hyper-rational, and for him the intellect is absolutely supreme. He believed in a rational force that orders and governs the universe, and which has elevated humans among the animals by endowing them with their own spark of Reason, to be their guardian and guide, to enable them to pursue virtue; in other words, to

say and do everything in conformity with the soundest reason.

What, exactly, does he mean by that? For one, he proposes the importance of living by ruling principles.  These rational principles must be true, and they serve to stake your rational perspective into your lot, so that you are

like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

Pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, death and birth, honor and dishonor — nothing can harm a man who is directed by ruling principles on the pursuit of virtue.

Since all men share in Reason, Marcus Aurelius reasons, they all are kinsmen, for they

participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity.

In this, they share in something stronger than ties of flesh and blood. This shared nature is what binds them into a social body.

For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature, and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turn away.

He uses an analogy similar to that of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

Therefore, since nature has fashioned mankind as an intelligent and social collective, it is contrary to nature to act otherwise.

The only things of your concern are those which you can control.

What other people think is out of your control; how they behave is out of your control; illness and disease are out of your control; economic swings are out of your control; geopolitical decisions are out of your control; the timing of a natural or accidental death is out of your control. The vicissitudes of life are inexorable: the tide comes in and the tide goes out, and you can either struggle against it or ride with it.

Therefore, Marcus Aurelius exhorts, it is foolish to waste time and effort by attempting to control what cannot be controlled. Instead we ought to focus on what we can control: We can control our own choices, our own opinions, our own behavior, and, in sum, our own character, for

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

For this reason, it is crucial to Marcus Aurelius to form habitual thoughts that are rational, true and social, that he might be a rational, true, and social man; and that he might be immovable in a world in constant flux. He continues,

Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.

Nothing that is perceived comes into direct contact with the mind, but rather is filtered through opinions or judgment. These color the images of experience. As Aurelius writes,

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.

We can reframe our opinions and judgments in such a way that

the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and an obstacle on the road helps us along this road.

Attention is a limited resource, and its use should be guided by reason. 

Marcus Aurelius writes,

it is necessary to remember that the attention given to everything has its proper value and proportion.

Not all things are equally worthy of our attention. The marketing arms race is occurring between companies fighting to develop ways to capture more of our attention; as a result, much of our attention is stolen from us without our awareness. We check our phones 50 times a day, scroll through social media obsessively, play video games and watch Netflix for hours on end. The question Marcus Aurelius beckons us to ask in all activities is, What is the value of this? and to give it the amount of our attention proportional to the answer to that question.

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