Becoming More Stoic With Marcus Aurelius

His life and best quotes

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Marcus Aurelius is one of the most famous and eminent Stoics.

The historian, Herodian wrote the following about him:

Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.

Herodian, History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius

Born in 121 AD, Marcus Aurelius was a precocious and serious youth. The emperor, Antoninus Pius declared Marcus Aurelius as his successor at a young age. Marcus Aurelius committed himself to his studies, preparation, and training.

His teacher, Junius Rusticus, shared Epictetus’s Discourses with him. From him, he learned Stoic philosophy. We find paraphrases of Epictetus all over Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Like Stoics practitioners today, Marcus Aurelius practiced his philosophy by memorizing and meditating on Stoic maxims. He used philosophy not as an academic exercise, but as a way to become more resilient and virtuous. We can do the same.

Incredibly, Marcus Aurelius did not intend to share his writing publicly. His Meditations are reminders that he wrote to himself to live well.

By all accounts, Aurelius did not fit the standard mold of the emperor. He would have preferred to be a philosopher. But his role was to be greater.

Despite wishing things were otherwise, Aurelius devoted himself to running the empire well. Unlike other emperors, he maintained the reputation of a fair, generous, and competent ruler.

Yet his reign moved from one disaster after another. Whether it was Germanic peoples invading Rome, uprisings from rebellious generals, or a widespread plague, Aurelius’s life offered no respite. The historian Cassius Dio wrote:

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.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 72

Such a life no doubt benefited from the solace of Stoic philosophy. Philosophy can build resilience and virtue.

In many respects, Marcus Aurelius is a model Stoic. He was a thoughtful friend, advisor, and general. During his reign, he faced enemies in battle, managed a deadly plague, and served as a well-regarded judge. He forgave political opponents and faithfully served the Roman people.

No doubt he made mistakes. He possessed unique vices, as well as common flaws of his time.

Nonetheless, he exemplified the virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and wisdom as far as imperfect beings like us can.

Though we live in radically different circumstances, we can use his example to be more Stoic.

🎯 Action

Take a moment to reflect on some of Marcus Aurelius’s best lines from his Meditations:

Begin in the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of good that is beautiful, and of the bad that is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, not can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1

Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.7

Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.17

🔗 Links

🏛️ Check out our course on Marcus Aurelius in the Stoa app. It includes daily lessons and meditations on how to build a more resilient and Stoic life from the Roman emperor and philosopher.

Note – if you still want to use Stoa after trying a free trial but cannot afford it, reach out to us and we’ll give you a free account.

📖 Our favorite book on Marcus Aurelius is Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like A Roman Emperor. Not only is it a first-rate biography, Donald is an expert in psychotherapy and philosophy, as such, he details how Marcus Aurelius used Stoic philosophy to live better and how we can do the same.

📚️ There are many excellent translations of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. We recommend:

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