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 are remembered for ruling wisely and justly.
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.
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.
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.”
This essentially means turning an obstacle into an opportunity. Learning opportunities are one kind of opportunity, but there are other kinds of opportunities that can arise.
One example is the story of Catulus (which I wrote about in my article on Ancient Roman humor tips) and how he used a vicious verbal attack on himself and instead turned it around to show off his cool and wit. The attacker wanted to make fun of him, but Catulus not only used this as an opportunity to defend himself, but also to make the guy look like a fool.
Marcus further expounds on this in a passage in Book 8:
“But there are some active powers and external obstacles that will hinder me.- Well, but by accepting the hindrance and by being content to transfer your efforts to that which is allowed, another opportunity of action is immediately put before you in place of that which was hindered. Another opportunity will present itself.”
Think of a negative situation that you had experienced in your life? How could you have turned it around and made it into something positive?
Ryan Holiday who wrote the book “The Obstacle is the Way”, which deals with how Stoicism can be applied life, used this quote as the basis for the title of his book. His translation (influenced by a Buddhist saying) is this:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
2) You should act according to nature.
One core tenet of Stoic philosophy and one which Marcus Aurelius repeats consistently is the mantra to live according to nature.
“Observe what your nature requires, so far as you are governed by nature only: then do it and accept it, if your nature, since you are a living being, shall not be made worse by it.”
As a human, you are governed by your nature and you should live in accordance to it.
However what does this mean? For the Stoics, the word “nature” is how things are and how they develop in the world. There is a natural flow to things and this is why the world is at it is.
One part of nature is human nature and the general tendencies of humans to act in certain ways. There are some innate drives that humans have that shape their behavior. The Stoics understood this and it influenced their ideas on how a person should behave in life.
The Ancient Stoics studied physics and formed elaborate theories on how things function. For example, they believed that there are two elements that make up everything in the world: a passive element and an active element.
It is the active elements that act upon the passive elements and shape them. The Stoics believed that air and fire were active elements, while water and earth were passive ones.
However, I think we can turn to modern science to get a clearer explanation of what living according to nature means. Evolution is what shapes the way living things look like and how they behave. The two main goals of every individual is to survive and reproduce.
This is where the inner drives come from. These inner drives are controlled by internal chemical processes deep inside the brain and body.
Different types of processes give rise to emotions, which are one of the primary controllers of human behavior and hence human nature.
However, nature has given humans another very powerful tool, and that is the ability to reason.
This ability to reason was the most important part of “living according to nature” for the Stoics.
“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it? For if this does its own work, what else should you wish for?”
If you go back to the discussion on cognitive biases and the work of Daniel Kahneman, a researcher in behavioral psychology and a holder of the Nobel Prize in Economics, you will see that humans engage in two types of thinking: what Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is the fast intuitive type of thinking based on emotions. It is fast, but can often lead to failures (cognitive biases for example). System 2 is the slow deliberative type of thinking: rational thinking.
Marcus Aurelius gave some advice on how to correct the errors and cognitive biases arising from System 1 thinking and to be more rational:
“There are four principal aberrations of the superior faculty against which you should be constantly on your guard, and when you have detected them, you should wipe them out and say on each occasion thus: this thought is not necessary: this tends to destroy social union: this which you are going to say comes not from the real thoughts; for you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts. But the fourth is when you will not reproach yourself for anything, for this is an evidence of the diviner part within you being overpowered and yielding to the less honorable and to the perishable part, the body, and to its gross pleasures.”
According to Marcus, there are four principles of superior faculty. Some of these are linked to lessening the influence of cognitive biases and false thinking on your actions. There are some modern tools which you can use and which can help you with this. For example, you can use Kahneman’s Cognitive Biases Checklist.
For the Stoics, living according to reason was fundamental. This is the system that they strived to adopt for their lives.
“And next you must observe what your nature requires so far as you are a living being. And all this you may allow yourself, if your nature, so far as you are a rational animal, shall not be made worse by it. But the rational animal is consequently also a political (social) animal. Use these rules, then, and trouble yourself about nothing else.”
Humans by nature are social animals, but they are also rational animals. To live according to nature, you need to observe what nature requires of you (such as satisfying your basic needs), and use your brain when doing things.
Seneca, in one of his “Letters to Lucilius”, goes more into how living according to nature looks like:
“Our motto, as you know, is “Live according to Nature”; but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlabored elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding.”
Living according to nature means living a simple life, but not letting yourself go. You should still take care of your appearance, and try to improve your standing in life.
The key here is moderation in all things. For as Seneca stated:
“Natural desires are limited.”
In Book 11, Marcus Aurelius summarizes nicely what a rational soul is and how to live according to nature:
“These are the properties of the rational soul: it sees itself, analyzes itself, and makes itself such as it chooses; the fruit which it bears itself enjoys- for the fruits of plants and that in animals which corresponds to fruits others enjoy- it obtains its own end, wherever the limit of life may be fixed. Not as in a dance and in a play and in such like things, where the whole action is incomplete, if anything cuts it short; but in every part and wherever it may be stopped, it makes what has been set before it full and complete, so that it can say, I have what is my own.
And further it traverses the whole universe, and the surrounding vacuum, and surveys its form, and it extends itself into the infinity of time, and embraces and comprehends the periodical renovation of all things, and it comprehends that those who come after us will see nothing new, nor have those before us seen anything more, but in a manner he who is forty years old, if he has any understanding at all, has seen by virtue of the uniformity that prevails all things which have been and all that will be.
This too is a property of the rational soul, love of one’s neighbor, and truth and modesty, and to value nothing more than itself, which is also the property of Law. Thus then right reason differs not at all from the reason of justice.“
3) You should focus internally.
One of the main points of the quote is that a rational soul sees itself, analyzes itself and then based on this makes itself as it wants to be.
The idea here is that in order to become the person you want to be, you need to look inwards first.
“Look within. Let neither the peculiar quality of anything nor its value escape you.”
Focusing internally and looking into your own mind is the key to happiness. For as Marcus Aurelius states:
“Through not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.”
A lot of times people complain about others, without actually noticing their own faults. For as the classical Biblical saying goes:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
Marcus Aurelius has a very similar message:
“Nothing is more wretched than a man who traverses everything in a round, and pries into the things beneath the earth, as the poet says, and seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the daemon within him, and to reverence it sincerely. And reverence of the daemon consists in keeping it pure from passion and thoughtlessness, and dissatisfaction with what comes from gods and men.”
Don’t pry into other people’s lives. Attend to your own. Fix your own problems before you go about trying to tell other people what to do.
This is very similar to the classic Biblical saying of not judging other people, if you yourself don’t want to be judged. Also the Koran has a very similar saying:
“Most abominable in the sight of God is that you say what you do not do.”
This advice is not only good from a general societal point view, but also for your own internal mental health. When you don’t focus on how others act, you can also forget about what they think of you.
When you don’t concern yourself with what others think, and only focus on yourself, you can really bury many fears that you have.
“Do not waste the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, when you do not refer your thoughts to some object of common utility. For you lose the opportunity of doing something else when you have these types of thoughts: What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving, and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own ruling power.”
When you don’t care about what other people think of you or what you are doing, you gain a certain sense of freedom. You can do things that you want to do.
So how should you act towards people who hate you?
“Suppose any man shall despise me. Let him look to that himself. But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt. Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly, like the great Phocion, unless indeed he only assumed it.
For the interior parts ought to be such, and a man ought to be seen by the gods neither dissatisfied with anything nor complaining. For what evil is it to you, if you are now doing what is agreeable to your own nature, and are satisfied with that which at this moment is suitable to the nature of the universe, since you are a human being placed at your post in order that what is for the common advantage may be done in some way?“
Marcus always preached that you should be good with people, even those that hate you. This is made much easier if you have internal, intrinsic motivation for doing things. If you are doing things that you like and you are satisfied with them, why should you care if others hate you?
Intrinsic motivation is the key to being persistent and also finishing tasks which are hard.
You should be your own judge of the value of what you do and create. Don’t let others be the ones who determine that.
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others. If then a god or a wise teacher should present himself to a man and bid him to think of nothing and to design nothing which he would not express as soon as he conceived it, he could not endure it even for a single day. So much more respect have we to what our neighbors shall think of us than to what we shall think of ourselves.”
However this is a very common problem. People often stress much more about what others think. Why do they put so much stock in what others think of them?
Marcus wonders why this is so, since common human nature is to love yourself more than all others (which is pretty logical due to the drivers of evolution).
For Marcus Aurelius, it is not important what others think of you, but instead what is important is to be internally driven and to have intrinsic motivation for things.
In Book 4, he gives an example of this. A thing that is beautiful does not need external praise to be beautiful. The fact that something is praised or blamed does not change it.
“Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself. Neither worse then nor better is a thing made by being praised. I affirm this also of the things which are called beautiful by the vulgar, for example, material things and works of art. That which is really beautiful has no need of anything; not more than law, not more than truth, not more than benevolence or modesty. Which of these things is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed? Is such a thing as an emerald made worse than it was, if it is not praised?”
In the article on NLP meta-programs, I wrote about different personality types. One of these meta-programs is having an internal or external reference. Some people have an internal frame of reference, while others an external one. To quote my own article:
“Are you a person who knows by themselves when they did a good job or a bad job and doesn’t need others to tell them? Or are you a person who needs and seeks external validation? This is the basic premise of this schema, which basically describes how you evaluate yourself and different situations.”
Of course no one is 100% in one camp or the other, but instead it is like a continuum and can vary from situation to situation. Luckily, like with any meta-program, your frame of reference can be changed. You can start working on having an internal frame of reference, instead of an external one.
Marcus also gives a case for focusing on knowledge and trying to understand how the world works as something that can give perspective. Once you have this perspective, you can much easily find the intrinsic value in things.
“He who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good; and he who loves pleasure, his own sensations; but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.”
When you focus on understanding, instead of on things like fame, you can really start knowing what drives and motivates you and do things that give you internal satisfaction. This is the key for intrinsic motivation. So instead of looking at other people and outward things, consider only your own acts.
External things like fame should play no role in determining what you do and how you do it.
“How can our principles become dead, unless the impressions (thoughts) which correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame. I can have that opinion about anything, which I ought to have. If I can, why am I disturbed? The things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind. Let this be the state of you affects, and you will stand erect. To recover your life is in your power. Look at things again as you used to look at them; for in this consists the recovery of your life.”
Things that are external to your mind should have no relation to it at all. They can be a byproduct of what you do (and that is great), but they should not be the focus of what you do.
This will be much easier to do when you understand a basic Stoic mantra: there are things that you can control, and those that you cannot.
To quote Epictetus:
“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power.”
You should focus on the things that you can control and forget about the rest. Things like fame are outside your control and so your life should not be about gaining them. You need to find a focus which you can control.
One thing that you can control to a large extent is your opinion on things. Oftentimes some unfortunate events happen to pass. You cannot really affect that. What you can affect is how you think about these events.
“The universe is transformation: life is opinion.”
Just like the basis of the universe is that it is in a constant state of flux, the basis of life is opinion. How you may ask?
Well, perception plays a great role in how you act. This is one of the cognitive biases (framing effect). If you see the glass as half full, or as half empty, that will determine how you act.
If you are a pessimist and see the glass as half empty, you may not act. If you are an optimist and see the glass as half full, then you may act. However the basic fact of the matter did not change: the glass itself was filled with the same amount of liquid in each case. It was just your perception of the amount that differed.
Marcus Aurelius has several quotes on this:
“Remember that all is opinion. There is obvious truth to the Cynic Monimus’ statement that ‘all is opinion’; and obvious, too, is the usefulness of this statement if a man profits from it insofar as it is true.”
Monimus was an Ancient Greek philosopher (of the Cynic school) coming from Syracuse in Sicily. He denied that there is an objective truth and instead promoted scepticism. Marcus Aurelius obviously took inspiration from his work and applied this tenet to his guiding principles: All things are a matter of perception.
“Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power. Take away then, when you choose, your opinion, and like a mariner, who has doubled the promontory, you will find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay.”
So how you think about things is very important and affects how you act. Change your opinion and change the way you act.
“Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions.”
Much of your troubles come from your own perception of things.
How should you act when disturbed? Marcus gives some pointers:
“When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for you will have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it.”
It is not external things that bother you, but your perception of them:
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives you pain, who hinders you from correcting your opinion?
And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing which seems to you to be right, why don’t you not rather act than complain? But some insuperable obstacle is in the way?- Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you.
But it is not worthwhile to live if this cannot be done. Take your departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles.“
It is up to you to choose how to look at things:
“It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.”
Looking internally is at the basis of life in a Stoic way. You need to master your inner discource, if you really want to succeed. The Stoics really promoted affirmations and self-talk as the basis of a positive mindset.
Pierre Hadot in his work on Marcus Aurelius “The Inner Citadel” summarizes this aspect of Stoic life:
“The Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one’s inner discourse. Everything in an individual’s life depends on how he represents things to himself – in other words, how he tells them to himself in inner dialogue.”
Based on mastering this inner discourse, you can form an “inner citadel”, a fortress of the mind against the bad things present in the outside world:
“Remember that the ruling faculty is invincible, when self-collected it is satisfied with itself, if it does nothing which it does not choose to do, even if its resistance is unreasonable. What then will it be when it forms a judgement deliberately about anything and aided by reason? Therefore the mind which is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for. If you take refuge within it, you will then be in an impregnable position for the future.”
4) Have a purpose.
Focusing internally and having intrinsic motivation can help you find something which can drive your existence: your purpose.
“Do the things external which fall upon you distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then you must also avoid being carried about the other way. For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts.”
A lot of people just do things without giving thought to why they are doing them. They do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but without any purpose.
They are about doing “things”, going to “events”, or being “seen”. What is the reason for doing these things? What is the purpose?
Most people have no idea.
Don’t get distracted by external factors, but instead you should think of what is your purpose. What type of a message do you want to be passed about you? What goals should drive you?
“First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.”
Don’t do anything without a purpose. The thing about purpose is that you can also have several different purposes. Some people might have one grand purpose in life, such as helping sick kids in Africa and they dedicate their lives to just that one purpose.
However most likely, people have several purposes. These can be lower level purposes for individual actions.
For example you have a leaky roof on your house. You need to fix it. In order to do that you need to perform some actions. The purpose here is not some grand purpose having to do with the meaning of your life, but instead it is one very limited purpose of fixing your leaky roof.
A purpose should be linked to an action, and an action should be linked to a purpose.
“Let no act be done without a purpose, nor otherwise than according to the perfect principles of art.”
When doing things, try to figure out the why. When you have a goal, try to break it down. Marcus Aurelius gives some tips:
“In everything always observe what the thing is which produces for you an appearance, and resolve it by dividing it into the formal, the material, the purpose, and the time within which it must end.”
Humans are always longing for something bigger than themselves. They need a drive and having a higher level purpose can create that drive. However, how do you discover your purpose?
“He who does not know what the world is, does not know where he is. And he who does not know for what purpose the world exists, does not know who he is, nor what the world is. But he who has failed in any one of these things could not even say for what purpose he exists himself. What then do you think of him who avoids or seeks the praise of those who applaud, of men who know not either where they are or who they are?”
Marcus Aurelius said that you should first start by looking at the big picture and then moving on down. Contemplate the universe and learn about how things work. So the first thing is to try to gain as much knowledge as you can.
Once you have this general knowledge about the world around you, you can find your place in it. This will help you find your purpose.
5) Act now.
Once you have this purpose, you need to take action.
“Remember how long you have been putting off these things, and how often you had received an opportunity from the gods, and yet did not use it. You must now at last perceive of what universe you are a part, and of what administrator of the universe your existence is an efflux, and that a limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from you mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.”
Don’t put off doing things. Start doing them now. That’s a problem that some people have. They keep on putting off things and then never do them. If you want to do something, start doing it now. This is an important step.
Having a purpose and taking action were also the main messages of Seneca’s “On the shortness of life”. It is better to live a life where you strive for things and do things, instead of one where you just go through the motions.
There is a very powerful passage in Book 8. You have to build yourself action by action:
“It is your duty to order your life well in every single act; action by action, and if every act does its duty, as far as is possible, be content; and no one is able to hinder you so that each act shall not do its duty.”
Another translation of this passage is a bit more illuminating:
“You have to assemble your life yourself—action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.”
Marcus talks about goals, but he also keeps in mind that actually achieving your goals is not always up to you. There are some unforeseen circumstances which can always keep you from achieving them.
What is important here is going through the process of trying to achieve your goals. Whether you succeed is not always up to you, but whether you actually set out on the path is up to you. It is taking action that counts. To quote Cicero:
“The shooter must do everything he can to hit the target, and yet it is this act of doing everything in order to hit the target and realize his plan, which is, if I may say, the end that the shooter is seeking. It is this that corresponds to what we call the sovereign good in life, whereas hitting the target is only something that can be wished for.”
It is not the destination that matters, but the journey. You need to start going somewhere, plan out a system that gets you there and then start walking.
What makes you a hero is not the result of your action, but instead the actual act of taking it. In Ancient times, Hector, the fallen commander of Troy, was celebrated a hero as much as the victorious Greek commanders who defeated him.
Hector defended his city, fought in many fights and finally accepted one final duel against Achilles. He died in the battle, but will forever be remembered a hero. He did not accomplish his goal of defeating Achilles or even of saving his city from the invading army, but what counts is that he fougth bravely and went down swinging his sword.
The future is uncertain and so you can only do things in the present. You need to focus on your immediate goals in front of you.
An interesting point that Marcus makes is that you need to go “action by action”. This can be done through the process of setting out mini-goals and trying to achieve them. This is at the core of the system that you should set up.
How does this work in practice? You set up a final goal, but then break it down to a series of mini-goals and each time you focus on accomplishing one of them. When that is done, you move onto the next mini-goal.
To help you do that, in his essay “On Anger”, Seneca mentions a very useful exercise that he practiced daily.
“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he was about to go to bed, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured today? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?””
Benjamin Franklin also had a similar practice in his life, and this type of questioning is at the core of the agile process of continuous self-improvement. This is a system that I described in one of my articles and that I adapted from a process to develop software.
In this agile process, you start your day by asking yourself three basic questions:
1) What have I done yesterday and how did it go?
2) What do I plan to do today?
3) Are there any potential problems that I will face today?
Based on the answers to these questions, you plan out your day. At the end of the week, you sit down and reflect on what you have done that week and how you can improve for the next week. The questions that Seneca used could be very helpful for this process.
This agile process is a good way to go from one action to another in the pursuit of something greater. With the different questions and constant examination of what you have done and want to do, you can draft small mini-goals to accomplish and focus on them. That way you lessen the uncertainty.
You should always be flexible enough to change up your process, when things don’t go your way. As mentioned before, failures are feedback mechanisms that you can use to adjust your process and thereby move closer to achieving your goals.
However when doing things remember not to do too much. After all, multitasking has proven not to work very well.
“If you seek tranquility, do less.”
If you really want to have a tranquil life, do less. When you do less, many of your worries will disappear.
This is also something that you should remember when stating your goals. Don’t try to do too much at once. Instead focus on just a few priorities and then build up from there.
Another thing that Marcus Aurelius touches upon in “Meditations” is the concept of “flow”, where you get so absorbed by doing something that you even forget to do other things. He talks about how those who love what they do (arts) exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food.
This is also very similar to the advice that Einstein gave to his son.
A piece of guidance that Marcus gives is to do everything as if it were your last moment:
“Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give yourself relief from all other thoughts.
And you will give yourself relief, if you do every act of your life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to you.
You see how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.“
When you do things in this way, Marcus states, you will live a life which is like the life that the gods live.
One very interesting passage that struck me when reading the “Meditations” was how Marcus described the act of getting up in the morning:
“In the morning when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm? – But this is more pleasant.-
Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Do you not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe?
And are you unwilling to do the work of a human being, and do you not make haste to do that which is according to your nature? – But it is necessary to take rest also.-
It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in your acts it is not so, but you stop short of what you cannot do. So you love not thyself, for if you did, you would love thy nature and her will.
But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but you value your own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory.
And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in your eyes and less worthy of your labor?“
I have often found myself in the morning questioning the purpose of waking up and whether I should not just stay in bed. I think the situation that Marcus Aurelius described here in this passage is a common one for many people.
However by using the technique that Marcus describes, you can talk yourself out of wasting your time lying in bed, and instead getting up and starting your day.
You could also think of getting out of bed as a metaphor for life. Stop lying in bed doing nothing, but instead get up and take action!
6) If something is attainable by man, it is attainable by you.
Marcus Aurelius also thought that if something is attainable by man, then it can be attained by you as well. If someone else can do it, it is possible for you to do too. This is very similar to what I wrote in the article titled: Nothing is Impossible.
“If a thing is difficult to be accomplished by yourself, do not think that it is impossible for man: but if anything is possible for man and conformable to his nature, think that this can be attained by yourself too.”
Things attainable by man are not impossible. If it is attainable by man, then you can do it too. If you want some more details on this, then read this article.
However if you have troubles doing something, don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to get help.
“Be not ashamed to be helped; for it is your business to do your duty like a soldier in the assault on a town. How then, if being lame you cannot mount up on the battlements alone, but with the help of another it is possible?”
7) Remove your desire for empty things.
One very important piece of advice that Marcus Aurelius gives is to remove your desire for empty things like empty fame. Don’t be seeking fame for the sake of fame. That should not be your purpose.
People who seek fame just for the sake of fame or other such empty things are usually empty inside:
“About fame: Look at the minds of those who seek fame, observe what they are, and what kind of things they avoid, and what kind of things they pursue. And consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after.”
If you have such desires you should remove them.
“This reflection also tends to the removal of the desire of empty fame, that it is no longer in your power to have lived the whole of your life, or at least your life from your youth upwards, like a philosopher; but both to many others and to yourself it is plain that you are far from philosophy.”
Seeking things like fame removes the control that you have over your life, since fame is something that you have no control over. It also shows that you are not really a wise person, but a fool, since people with real wisdom don’t care for such things.
In my experience, many people who have achieved great things are usually humble about them, while those who have never done anything great are boastful. There is a cognitive bias describing this called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where a stupid person thinks that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread and believe themselves superior to all others. Unfortunately in our current society of instant gratification, there are many people acting this way.
Marcus Aurelius goes on to show that in itself fame has no value.
“Look down from above on the countless herds of men and their countless solemnities, and the infinitely varied travels in storms and calms, and the differences among those who are born, who live together, and die. And consider, too, the life lived by others in olden time, and the life of those who will live after you, and the life now lived among barbarous nations, and how many know not even your name, and how many will soon forget it, and how they who perhaps now are praising you will very soon blame you, and that neither a posthumous name is of any value, nor reputation, nor anything else.”
This was a very important lesson that Marcus wrote all throughout his journal. He wrote the names of famous people from history and how even during his time their names have faded.
What he proposed to do instead is simple:
“Wipe out imagination: check desire: extinguish appetite: keep the ruling faculty in its own power.”
Check your desires and keep your mind sharp.
You should not seek material things as your end goal, but instead retire into your own mind. For your own mind has great power.
“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and you too maybe desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you shall choose to retire into yourself.
For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.
Constantly then give to yourself this retreat, and renew yourself; and let your principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as you shall recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send you back free from all discontent with the things to which you will return.“
Your mind and your soul are what really count at the end. They are also the only things that you truly possess.
“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.”
Things like wealth or fame can come as byproducts of what you do, but they should not be the end goal. Just like you got them, they can be taken away, so don’t focus on them.
You should remove all useless thoughts:
“You can remove out of the way many useless things among those which disturb you, for they lie entirely in your opinion; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.”
One good way to get rid of useless thoughts and see things as they really are, is to go back to first principles. What do I mean?
“When you have roasted meat before us and other such dishes, you will suddenly realize, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are.
Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approbation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason, and when you are most sure that you are employed doing things worth your pains, it is then that it cheats you most.“
You see how Marcus stripped down things to their first principles? The fancy meat you are eating is just the dead body of some animal. This is basically the generic parts technique that I described in my article on first principles thinking!
When you engage in this type of deconstruction, you will be able to see things for what they really are.
Maybe you are a person who until now was driven by material things and empty desires. It’s not too late to change now. Anyone can change.
“And all our assent is changeable; for where is the man who never changes?”
Start by keeping an open mind.
“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.”
Allow yourself to change your opinion by facts. You can do this for example by trying to lessen the impact of cognitive biases, especially those them stem from your own ego.
“Is any man afraid of change? Why what can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And you cannot take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And you cannot be nourished, unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?”
Change is not a bad thing, so don’t be afraid of it.
Also don’t be scared of difficulties and failures, for you will arrive at things through a long-winding road.
One important hero for the Stoics was Hercules (Heracles in Greek). For example, Seneca wrote two plays on him.
Hercules was probably an important source of inspiration for Marcus Aurelius, since he definitely was influential for his son, the mad Emperor Commodus, who used to dress up as Hercules and pretend to be him.
One lesson from Hercules was that of the Choice of Hercules, where he was given the easy path in life and the hard path. Hercules chose the hard path.
For Stoics, the hard path was usually the path to take. However, Marcus notes that many of the things that you can get by taking a long path, you can in fact get now (but please beware of all the dangers of instant gratification).
“All those things at which you wish to arrive by a circuitous road, you can have now, if you do not refuse them to yourself. And this means, if you will take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.”
For Stoics, the only thing that mattered was the present. If you think about it, it is very consistent with their mantra of only worrying about things that you can control. The only thing you can control is the present. The past is already done, and the future you don’t know.
So how should you act?
8) Be a good man.
“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.”
This is a very famous quote and one that reflects something present in our society. Many people talk about things, but when it comes to doing, they do not do anything. Stop talking about shit, and do it. Stop talking about what type of a good man you should be, just be one.
“Let it not be in any man’s power to say truly of you that you are not good; but let him be a liar whoever shall think anything of this kind about you; and this is altogether in your power. For who is he that shall hinder you from being good?”
No one can stop you from being good. There are unfortunately many people who have no shame, but you should not be one of them. For the Stoics virtue was a fundamental aspect of how you should conduct your daily affairs.
“Never value anything as profitable to you which shall compel you to break your promise, to lose your self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains: for he who has preferred to everything intelligence and daemon and the worship of its excellence, acts no tragic part, does not groan, will not need either solitude or much company.”
Be a decent person. You should always keep your promises, and not be a hypocrite. Only in this way can you keep your self-respect.
However to know what is good, we also need to know what is bad.
“What is badness? It is that which you have often seen. And on the occasion of everything which happens keep this in mind, that it is that which you have often seen. Everywhere up and down you will find the same things, with which the old histories are filled, those of the middle ages and those of our own day; with which cities and houses are filled now. There is nothing new: all things are both familiar and short-lived.”
There are some other memorable quotes:
“Be erect, or be made erect.”
You need to do good things to other people and act according to nature:
“No man is tired of receiving what is useful. But it is useful to act according to nature. Do not then be tired of receiving what is useful by doing it to others.”
And a final powerful quote for this category:
“If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it.”
9) Remember that time passes quickly and that your existence is just a small blip on the universe.
Marcus Aurelius often considered what his role in the universe is, and what the role of any man is in the grand scheme of things. He came to the conclusion that everyone is insignificant.
“How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapory fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are- all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe.”
All things are small in comparison to the vastness of the universe and everything is perishable.
“Asia and Europe are corners of the universe: all the sea a drop in the universe; Athos a little clod of the universe: all the present time is a point in eternity. All things are little, changeable, perishable.”
Time passes quickly and we will soon be forgotten. In many of his passages, he would list famous dead people and note how their names and memories are fading.
He also reflected on the quick passage of time and with every passing second we are closer to death.
“We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left.”
All of this was linked to the greater principles of taking action and living in the moment. With every new day, you have less and less time to do things and you never know what the future will bring.
One forceful passage reminds us of how fast things change and how they are in a constant flux.
“Keep in mind the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are now and the things which will come. For our existence is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still. And consider this which is near to you, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who feels self-importance with such things or is plagued by them and makes himself miserable? For they vex him only for a time, and a short time.”
Things come and go. Go flip through an old album of photographs (or check your pics on Facebook). You will see snapshots of moments that are long gone in the past already. Yet, at that exact instance, they were the present. That was one moment in time and you had no idea what was going to come. Even that is passed now. Very powerful if you think about it.
Marcus often advocated contemplating on the universe, on nature and on your own self.
“This you must always bear in mind, what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of a part it is of what kind of a whole; and that there is no one who hinders you from always doing and saying the things which are according to the nature of which you a part.”
What is your relationship to the whole? Once you have examined this, it will be easier for you to live all the other principles that Marcus Aurelius advocated like finding your purpose and living according to nature.
“Frequently consider the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another. For in a manner all things are implicated with one another, and all in this way are friendly to one another; for one thing comes in order after another, and this is by virtue of the active movement and mutual conspiration and the unity of the substance.”
Always consider connections and how things are connected. This can help you get knowledge.
Of course you don’t have to agree with everything that Marcus Aurelius wrote. One thing that I find very hard to swallow is the concept of predestination and sort of Candide-like (the character from Voltaire’s book) all is for the best.
Not sure whether this is consistent with free will, but who knows really. This type of thing is at the present moment unfalsifiable and cannot be proven. These types of things, however do not distract from the overall message of the work.
Another point which is disputable is whether you in fact have complete control over your happiness. The Stoics argued that yes you can, however other schools of philosophy (for example the Peripatetics who followed the teachings of Aristotle) argued that there are some objective factors outside your control that also impact your happiness.
For example, if you don’t have access to the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter or sex, can you truly be happy? The Stoics argued that yes you can, but others like the Peripatetics argued that you need to have these necessities satisfied first.
I tend to think that you do in fact need to have these necessities satisfied, and no amount of positive affirmations will help you if they are not. So that is my basic disagreement with the Stoics, however on the other aspects of your mind controlling your perception and how this affects your mental state, they are perfectly correct.
There are many practical things that you can learn from Marcus Aurelius and apply them in your own life. There are some passages which summarize the lessons that Marcus gave and that can serve as your key takeaways.
Here is one on prime principles:
“The prime principle then in man’s constitution is the social. And the second is not to yield to the persuasions of the body, for it is the peculiar office of the rational and intelligent motion to circumscribe itself, and never to be overpowered either by the motion of the senses or of the appetites, for both are animal; but the intelligent motion claims superiority and does not permit itself to be overpowered by the others.
And with good reason, for it is formed by nature to use all of them. The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception. Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things go straight on, and it has what is its own.“
There are several prime principles that govern people’s lives. One is that humans are social animals. The other is not to yield to cognitive biases and other such things, but instead be a rational and critical thinker.
What is happiness and how is it manifested?
“You can pass your life in an equable flow of happiness, if you can go by the right way, and think and act in the right way. These two things are common both to the soul of God and to the soul of man, and to the soul of every rational being, not to be hindered by another; and to hold good to consist in the disposition to justice and the practice of it, and in this to let your desire find its termination.”
And what is pain?
“About pain: The pain which is intolerable carries us off; but that which lasts a long time is tolerable; and the mind maintains its own tranquility by retiring into itself, and the ruling faculty is not made worse. But the parts which are harmed by pain, let them, if they can, give their opinion about it.”
There is one final analogy that I will quote, which perfectly summarizes life:
“In the application of your principles you must be like the pankratiast, not like the gladiator; for the gladiator lets fall the sword which he uses and is killed; but the pankratiast other always has his hand, and needs to do nothing else than use it.”
This is a great analogy for life. You should be like a mixed martial artist (pankration was an Ancient Greek form of mixed martial arts that was even part of the Olympic Games), and not a gladiator. A gladiator has only one tool which he uses and when he loses that, he will get killed easily. A mixed martial artist can fight with his hands and has many tools at his disposal.
That is why I advocate everyone to become Renaissance Men and have many tools in your toolbox in order to be able to tackle all the different challenges that life can throw at you.