In one of his most famous works “The Republic”, Plato presents the notion of philosopher kings. These are wise rulers who live a simple life and rule for the benefits of their own communities.
One of two things needs to happen in order for philosopher kings to rule:
“Philosophers must become kings, or those now called kings must genuinely and adequately philosophize.”
Unfortunately, most people in power are far from wise and often become less wise the longer they are in power.
However, in history, one man stands out as the archetype of a philosopher king. One man truly reflects the image of a wise ruler. That man is Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The other four Emperors who preceded him are remembered as the most able administrators and generals that the Empire had ever known and for ruling wisely and justly.
They left a legacy of “Pax Romana”, an era of peace and prosperity that had hardly been rivaled until modern times.
Marcus Aurelius ruled at a time when the Roman Empire was at the peak of its power, although during his time, you could see the first chinks in the imperial armor begin to develop.
Germanic tribes were starting to stir up trouble north of the border and Marcus Aurelius spent a large portion of his life on campaign across the Limes Romanus.
On one bleak day in his camp located on a river which is now called Hron in today’s Slovakia, he started to keep a personal journal in order to reflect on things and to keep himself rooted. This journal later became what we know as the “Meditations”, a series of thoughts and wise sayings collected into 12 books (or chapters).
These were supposed to be only personal lessons and reflections and were not meant to be shared with the outside world, but soon thereafter ended up being published anyways and distributed far and wide.
Their influence was immense, since many of these sayings and thoughts had very practical applications for anyone, irrespective of their social standing or situation in life.
The power of this work stems from the fact that Marcus Aurelius was a man with tremendous responsibilities and power, yet he managed to keep sane and humble amid all the surrounding chaos.
Most people will never get to be in the same position as him, but can find themselves in very similar situations. “Meditations” give solutions to common everyday problems, and can help you gain a wider perspective on things, as well as to develop mental strength and resilience.
They are based on Stoic teachings, but incorporate a wide variety of other influences as well. One source of inspiration for Marcus Aurelius was Epictetus, who we have already visited in a previous article. The fact that an Emperor drew on the wisdom of a former slave just further demonstrates the fact that these teachings can be taken by anyone and applied in any walk of life.
There are some very powerful lessons to be learned and used:
1) Human nature is the way it is. You need to learn to live with it.
One passage that immediately struck me when reading it, was this:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
Another translation of the same passage reads:
“Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”
It is amazing how this passage (irrespective of the way it is translated) reflects one of the most common problems that people face in their lives even today.
There will always be people who will try to bring you down. You might be the nicest, most unselfish, most helpful person ever, but there will still be people who will hate you or try to cause you harm.
“No man can rob us of our free will.”
There are bad people everywhere. This is a fact of life. You should remind yourself of this, but don’t let it bother you.
This is due to the basics of human nature. People are inherently selfish and this is due to inner drives.
Humans, just like any living being, are driven to survive and this means having access to resources in order to be able to do that. This implies behaviors which maximize their own chances.
One of these primal behaviors is status seeking, since being higher in status means having better access to key resources.
These people who are trying to trip you up might see you as a threat to their own ambitions and power.
This survival drive is also probably the reason why status-seeking cognitive biases (as I describe them in my Cognitive Biases Framework) developed and continue to be part of how people behave.
Even if people know they are behaving badly, they often try to rationalize what they do.
“With what are you discontented? Is it with the badness of men? Recall to your mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily.”
In Book 4, Marcus explores this further. He notes the social nature of people (as well as other animals), and that many of the things that people do are deeply ingrained in the psyche.
I explored this in a bit more detail in the article on my cognitive biases framework, where I have created the categories of ego-based biases, as well as social-animal based biases.
One first principle on which I based my framework is that humans are primarily social animals and the brain developed some internal patterns in order to promote this.
Cognitive biases evolved to be because in many ways they boosted an individual’s chances of survival, and hence are usually involuntary. As Marcus noted, oftentimes men do wrong due to internal processes in their brains and are not really conscious of doing wrong. This is exactly how cognitive biases work.
Another factor that drives a person’s behavior is the internal principles that they have.
In Book 4, Marcus gives this advice:
“Examine men’s ruling principles, even those of the wise, what kind of things they avoid, and what kind they pursue.”
In Book 9, he gives similar advice:
“Penetrate inwards into men’s leading principles, and you will see what judges you are afraid of, and what kind of judges they are of themselves.”
This is very helpful and useful when dealing with other people. Look at people’s principles and you will see what type of a person they are.
When you develop the skill of being able to judge a person’s driving principles, you will be in a better position to be aware of people who are potential threats to you and also to be able to develop a strategy of what to do when they try to bring you down.
“In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast.
Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for 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 that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.“
This passage illustrates Marcus’ thinking on what to do about people who try to bring you down. The first thing was not to give a fuck. Of course, Marcus put it much more eloquently, but essentially, this is what it boils down to.
This is also a good strategy for overcoming obstacles of any kind. You can always spin negative things into something positive. For example you can look at failures as learning opportunities, and this way failures will no longer be obstacles on your road, but instead help you to get to wherever you want to go.
The second part of that above quote is very interesting in terms of what to do when an obstacle comes your way. The translation of this passage by Pierre Hadot in his book “The Inner Citadel” makes this much more clear:
“People can perfectly well prevent me from carrying out such and such an action. Thanks, however, to action “with a reserve clause” and to “turning obstacles upside down,” there can be no obstacle to my intention, nor to my disposition. For my thought can “turn upside down” everything that presents an obstacle to my action, and transform the obstacle into an object toward which my impulse to act ought preferably to tend. That which impeded action thus becomes profitable to action, and that which blocked the road allows me to advance along the road.”