A man’s character is what defines him and what carries him through life. It is character that drives your choices and helps you deal with difficulties. The Stoics believed that virtue was the end-goal of anyone’s conduct and one of the few things that you truly had control over in this world.
A man can rise or fall just due to the virtues or faults of his character and it is often this that leaves a legacy. Marcus Aurelius is one of these men, who even after almost two thousand years is remembered for the strengths of his character and shown as a role model for conduct in times of difficulties.
Cassius Dio, Roman Senator and historian, who lived through the times of Marcus Aurelius, as well as those of his son, Commodus, had this to say about Marcus:
“He didn’t have the luck which he deserved, but was confronted throughout his reign by a multitude of disasters. That is why I admire him more than any other, for it was amidst these extraordinary and unparalleled difficulties that he was able to survive, and to save the Empire.”
Marcus Aurelius was not perfect, and he himself acknowledged it, but instead of falling prey to temptations, he struggled every day to reach perfection and lead the life of a philosopher. With the word “philosopher” we don’t mean someone who delivers hard to understand discourses on the meaning of life, but instead a man who tries to overcome his faults and live life according to reason, always striving to improve himself.
In order to do that, he kept a personal journal, where he noted down his thoughts and daily lessons. This journal was meant to be private, but did not remain so, and instead has been passed down to us as the “Meditations”. It is full of wisdom, which can be applied to your own life.
What types of things can you learn from the way Marcus conducted himself in daily life and which traits should you adopt? The first Book of the “Meditations” describes well the things that he learned from others.
Marcus Aurelius, just like anyone, was a man who learned from others. It was the people around him who shaped him.
You too were most likely shaped by those closest to you. I was lucky to have a good family, and wrote an article on what I learned from my grandfathers.
This is the first thing that you can take away: be thankful for what you have.
“To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.”
Marcus was always thanking his good fortunes. Many people are not so lucky, but even in the worst of times, they can find things to be thankful for.
More than 250 years after the times of Marcus Aurelius, when the Roman Empire in the West had fallen, Boethius, one of the last true Romans of Antiquity, was sitting in jail having an imaginary discussion with himself. He was condemned to die, but realized that even in such a dire situation, he can find positive things. One of these was that his family was OK.
Once you adopt this wider perspective on your situation, going about adopting other positive traits will be made much easier.
So which were the traits that Marcus Aurelius adopted?
Good morals and not raising your temper:
“From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.”
Modesty and being manly:
“My father: modesty and a manly character.”
Not doing evil deeds or having evil thoughts and living a simple life:
“From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.”
You need to spend on a good education (education is important):
“From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.”
Work hard, don’t be afraid to get dirty, and don’t meddle with other people:
“From my governor, from him too I learned endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.”
Work on improving yourself and having self-discipline:
“From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline.”
Read books carefully in order to understand them:
“And to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.”
Have a purpose and pursue it, but also be humble:
“From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness.
And to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favors, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.“
Have self-control, benevolent disposition, be family oriented, and tolerate ignorant people:
“From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery.
And at the same time he was most highly venerated by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation.“
Love justice, respect everyone, and have a disposition to do good:
“From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.
I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain.“
Practice self-discipline and self-government, and always have a positive mindset:
“From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious.
He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.“
Have a mild temper, but also be resolute and have perseverance:
“In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honors; and a love of labor and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission.”
The Building Blocks of Character
There are several themes that I caught coming out of those quotes. Out of these themes I managed to create the main building blocks for the character of Marcus Aurelius. Many of them are linked to the four Cardinal Virtues:
1) Prudence: wisdom and the ability to be driven by reason when acting. This is probably one of the most important virtues, as all the other ones are regulated by it.
2) Fortitude: courage and the strength to endure.
3) Temperance: restraint and self-control.
4) Justice: fairness.
Back in Antiquity, these four Cardinal Virtues were considered the most important parts of any moral character. Any man who was to be looked up to, should check the boxes for all four. They also form the basis of all the other building blocks for character that the Ancients, including Marcus Aurelius, possessed.
Strength to endure:
With everything that was happening around him, the primary attribute of Marcus was that he was always striving to endure whatever obstacles came his way. This was in fact the primary goal of all Stoics: persevere through all the challenges that are in your path.
You can never have complete control over things that happen to you, but you can always control what you think about them. It is the frame that you adopt towards the world that will control how you perceive it.
Another important part of character for Marcus Aurelius was having good morals and to always doing good things for the right reasons. He was a man who loved justice and learned not to do evil deeds or even have evil thoughts.
This also meant having a benevolent disposition towards others, respecting everyone, including tolerating people who were causing him misery. He tried focusing on himself and not meddling with other people. This helped him to have a mild temper and not to raise it (which always helps with keeping your stress levels down in bad situations).
What comes out of the writings of Marcus, is the modesty of the man. Even though he was the Emperor of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, he tried living a simple life and being humble.
Having a purpose and being driven:
You need to have a purpose and pursue it. You need to be resolute in this and have perseverance when obstacles impede your path. Without a purpose, you will just be drifting through life aimlessly.
This type of drive and sense of purpose was very important for Marcus in his everyday duties. As the Emperor, he had very crucial duties that he needed to carry out. As a man, he also needed to keep himself grounded in order to be able to carry out these duties to the best of his abilities.
Self-discipline and willingness to work hard:
Achieving your goals means having self-discipline and be willing to work hard. You need to have self-control and also not be afraid to get dirty once in a while.
Drive for self-improvement:
The journal that Marcus kept and that later became known as the “Meditations” was part of another important aspect of his life: the drive for self-improvement.
In the journal, he kept daily notes and lessons, which then helped him to improve in his day to day conduct.
One of the things that Marcus noted is that education is important and you need to spend on getting a good education. This should be your priority, not only in terms of money, but also time.
One very important thing that Marcus learned was to read books carefully in order to understand them. This is key in order to get valuable lessons out of them.
This type of focus on education and knowledge helped him to live according to nature and being able to apply reason in his conduct.
One definition of courage could be being afraid, but doing it anyways. From the writings of Marcus, you can see that he was not always sure of himself, but that did not stop him from acting.
Tough times had befallen him and he had to spend much of his Emperorship out in the field, fighting. Other Emperors would delegate these tasks to their Generals, but not Marcus. For him, it was his duty and he had to be there.
He had to face the dangers and overcome them. Courage to go forth and tackle the unknown is one of the defining parts of his character. He needed to meet challenges head on and not be shaken by them.
Courage was actually one of the most important character traits for a Roman. This stems from the original meaning of the word virtue. This word in fact comes from the Latin word “virtus”, which in its original sense meant being manly.
This meant having courage, and a certain martial drive. This “virtus” was also very important for his goal of living according to nature.
These building blocks can also be reused by you in order to build a strong and positive character for yourself. Just like Marcus Aurelius embarked on his own personal hero’s journey, anyone can do the same.
Philosophy in the ancient world was not something abstract, but instead had practical applications and was meant to show people how to live. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics left some tools to help you implement their system in your everyday life. You can train to become a philosopher just like Marcus.
One exercise that the Ancient Stoics used to do is called the Contemplation of the Sage. Here you would pick a person you admire, a role model of yours, and start thinking about what they would do in a certain situation. A great role model to adopt for this is Marcus Aurelius himself. Whenever faced with a difficult situation ask yourself this question:
What would Marcus Aurelius do?
In the next article, I will cover some tools and practical exercises that you can use to gain the same strengths of character that Marcus had, as well as ways to simplify your life.
Lessons and quotes from the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.
Read Even More:
Marcus Aurelius was the man of reference and role model for character for many Renaissance Men of the past centuries. If you want to be like them, you need to start crafting a vision for yourself. Find out how to do it:
How to craft a Vision for yourself.