The Most Overlooked Aspect of Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius on cultivating gratitude

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 spends pages and pages thanking his friends, teachers, family, and role models in the first chapter of Meditations.

Here are just a few of his notes on what he learned from his adopted father, Antoninus Pius:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.16

The central importance of this exercise for Marcus Aurelius highlights how important gratitude is for Stoics. It’s a central part of the philosophy. Yet – it’s also one of the most unacknowledged ones.

For Stoics, gratitude is grounded in the knowledge that other people and nature are good to us. It is founded on reason, not fantasy.

When we see the world clearly, we see that we have much to be thankful for. Marcus Aurelius cultivated gratitude by viewing the world objectively and remembering what he learned from others. By doing so, he revisits his acquired wisdom, recalls meaningful relationships, and checks his ego.

We are not purely independent beings. In the words of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, we’re dependent rational animals. We learn how to live from the people we encounter. Whatever we do, we’re bound up in networks of other people.

Happily, many of these individuals serve as fine examples for us – even if they are not perfect.

As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself:

The things ordained for you–teach yourself to be at one with those. And the people who share them with you–treat them with love.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.39

We’re fortunate to be able to live in a world that gives us the possibility of living well and lucky to be surrounded by past and present figures who show us the way.

That reality provides something to be thankful for.

🎯 Action

Take a moment to acknowledge how others have influenced you positively. If you can, let them know.

🔗 Links

📖 I especially appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s notes about his mother and tutor, Junius Rusticus, in Meditations:

My Mother
Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the simple way she lived–not in the least like the rich.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.3


The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character.

…And for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures–and loaning me his own copy.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.7

In such notes, he expresses the love he called himself to possess in Meditations 6.39.

⛰️ A helpful note from Brittany Polat, on Stoic’s attitude towards the cosmos:

As you read ancient Stoic texts, you will encounter many beautiful and moving references to cosmic nature.

Some Stoics today share the ancient belief that nature is divine, rational, and providential.

Other Stoics prefer to interpret these passages metaphorically, reading them as statements on the interconnectedness of all things.

Whether you choose to interpret Stoic nature as divine or not, I encourage you to cultivate the sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude that flows from the contemplation of the natural world.

Stoics traditionally believe that Nature contains a telos – a purpose and organizing principle. Regardless of whether you believe that or not, you can find calm and the sense that you’re at home by taking a thankful outlook toward the universe as a whole.

If you’d like to learn more about traditional Stoic beliefs, listen to our conversation with Chris Fisher.

🎺 We just released a new set of gratitude meditations in the Stoa App. The Gratitude course includes 7 distinct meditation practices designed to cultivate gratitude, focus on the positive, and foster joy. Find it in the meditation library.

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