In the 170s AD, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius spent weeks encamped in a tent on Rome’s imperial frontier, awaiting encroachments by northern tribes. Like any other multi-tasker, the emperor had a lot on his mind — juggling affairs of state, handling the empire’s raging plague, and providing food for the poor in the empire’s capital of Rome.
Aurelius is thought to have pulled out his stylus in this stark setting and started writing down his thoughts in a diary. The diary provided Aurelius the calm and focus he needed to press forward with urgent matters.
Known later as the Meditations, the journal became one of the most popular philosophical manuals in history. Combining spiritual reflections on the nature of humankind and the cosmos, with practical psychological insights on how to handle vexing problems, it made its way through nearly two millennia from brittle manuscripts copied by hand to today’s mass produced slim glossy paperbacks on the shelves of Barnes and Noble.
Statesmen, thinkers, and writers across the globe have found both soaring wisdom and practical strategy in the Meditations. J. K. Rowling tweeted that the emperor “never let [her] down.” English economist Beatrice Webb described Aurelius’ diary as her “manual of devotion.” Nelson Mandela found courage in the Meditations during his 27-year prison sentence. Novelist John Steinbeck cited it in East of Eden. China’s former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao claimed to have read the diary over 100 times. Frederick the Great, Adam Smith, and Tolstoy were also inspired by Aurelius’ thought and practice. Mahatma Gandhi claimed its influence on his non-violence principles.
When Aurelius began his diary, a pandemic was devastating the empire. Invasions ravaged the hinterland. Floods destroyed fields. Hunger destroyed provinces. Aurelius’ rivals plotted the emperor’s demise. On a personal front, the emperor had lost eight of thirteen children at early ages. As he neared death in 180 AD, he made the catastrophic decision to have his unstable son Commodus succeed him. The socio-pathologically cruel son dismantled the work that earned his father the title of one of Rome’s “five good emperors.”
Before becoming emperor, Aurelius adopted a creed whose principles embodied the core values of courage, empathy, justice, temperance, and gratitude.
This was Stoicism, an outgrowth in the 4th century BC of the burst of Greek thought 100 years earlier that produced some of the world’s greatest philosophical thought. This blossoming of humanist thought arose out of a worldwide outpouring of wisdom literature from the 8th century onward called the “Axial Age” with its universalistic and transcendent themes.
I had first encountered the illuminated mind of Marcus Aurelius as a 17-year-old. My family had recently moved 500 miles away from where I had grown up. Home, work, and school changed in an instant. My father approached me with a small paperback in his hand.
“Read this,” he said, placing the Meditations in my hand. “You will find words here that will stay with you forever.”
The word meditation comes from the Latin word meditaberis, meaning “to ponder.” Aurelius pondered the most profound questions facing any age or individual, and provided winning strategies on problem solving for world leaders, adolescents, and everyone in between.
For Aurelius, the mind – everyone’s mind — was a sacred space for retreat from the maddening pace of the world. It was also a place to dispassionately dissect problems to see them in proper perspective and find meaningful solutions. If we could discipline our minds to work on our behalf, they could defeat our toxic emotions and the worst dissolute impulses of the body. They could give us the happiness that was our birthright, but which required vigilance to acquire and to keep.
Aurelius encouraged cultivating the inborn gifts of human dignity and love, the practices of self-restraint and resistance to vice and hubris and superficiality, the happiness that comes from acknowledging the majesty of life despite its manifest flaws and failures, the acceptance of one’s suffering while reducing its impact on one’s life, and the awareness of the ephemerality of mortal existence, and the life of the soul.
Specifically, Aurelius advocated the practice of virtue, that “rational” part of human nature that called us to choose good action and thought over bad action and thought. As long as we did our best to align our good intentions with our actions, we accomplished what virtue required of us, whatever the outcome. Everything outside of us was beyond our control.
Aurelius also called us to reframe painful situations to extract from them positive lessons they offered. He urged us to look upon the evil done to us as a way to reflect on how we could improve ourselves. And he considered the improvement of society and the political commonwealth to be our universal obligation and one of humanity’s noblest goals.
Aurelius also believed that by cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we could create a formidable shield against life’s vicissitudes. In his Meditations, Aurelius thanked his mother Lucilla for teaching him “piety and generosity, and abstaining not only from evil deeds but even from evil thoughts, and simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.”
Over the years I have returned to the Meditations many times, as others have. Some of Aurelius’ most treasured maxims include: “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious gift it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” “You have power over your mind — realize this and you will find strength.” “Be content to seem who you really are.” “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” “Men exist for the sake of one another.” “Love is meant to heal. Love is meant to renew.”
Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome’s — and humanity’s — greatest spokesmen for the virtuous life, the good and happy life. A patron of the poor, an advocate for free speech and education, a leader known to forgive his military and political enemies, Aurelius gained a reputation as a sage and saint of his time.
Through his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius remains Everyman’s — and Everywoman’s — philosopher and sage, offering an enduring message for our own unique and challenging time.