7 Timeless Lessons From 'Philosopher King' Marcus Aurelius
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180 AD, and developed a reputation for being the ideal wise leader Plato termed the "philosopher king."
Marcus has remained relevant for 1,800 years largely due to his writings collected as "Meditations," which President Bill Clinton has said is one of his favorite books.
"Meditations" is not a typical philosophical treatise. It's closer to a diary. Marcus wrote the 12 books that make it up sometime during the last decade of his life. "That this was a dark and stressful period for him can hardly be doubted," Gregory Hays writes in the introduction to his translation of Marcus' original Greek. The emperor was faced with constant fighting, the rebellion of his general Cassius, the deaths of his wife and close friend, and the realization that his son Commodus was destined to be a bad ruler.
He dealt with these hardships by turning to philosophy, specifically the Stoicism of the ancient Greeks and his contemporary Roman philosophers. "Meditations" reveals that Marcus remained in control of his emotions through the beliefs that nature unfolds in a perfect way and that one must accept that they cannot change the past or what other people feel in their hearts.
We went through Hays' translation and picked out some key points on one of the main themes of "Meditations," how to recover from massive setbacks.
Here are some of the philosopher king's timeless lessons on how to be resilient:
Don't worry about people whose actions don't affect the common good.
Your energy and time are both limited, so don't waste them on what inconsequential people are doing, thinking, and saying, when you could be focusing on your own issues.
Live in the present.
"Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see," Marcus writes.
Refrain from imposing your feelings onto reality.
Your company collapses, your house burns down, you lose all your money — none of these are "bad" (or "good" for that matter), according to Marcus' philosophy. When you see things as what they really are, you're able to avoid succumbing to your emotions and accept what has happened.
Turn an obstacle into an opportunity.
Ryan Holiday's new book "The Obstacle Is the Way" is based off this Stoic fundamental, which says that we should use inevitable challenges as a chance to become a stronger person. Holiday likes Nassim Taleb's definition of a Stoic, who is someone who "transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking."
Find peace within yourself.
Marcus writes that people try to retreat from their problems and responsibilities by going somewhere like the mountains or the beach, but that travel isn't necessary to recollect yourself. He advocates a kind of brief meditation, where you withdraw into yourself and quiet your mind.
Don't resent people for their character.
If someone's character flaw has caused one of your problems, do not exert energy trying to change that person's character. Let things go. "You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice," Marcus says.
You are the only person responsible for your happiness.
"Choose not to be harmed — and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed — and you haven't been," Marcus writes. Furthermore, the only way people can truly harm you is if they change your character.
We first read about Hays' accessible translation in Holiday's book on Stoicism, "The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph."
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