What Marcus Aurelius Learned From People That Were A Lot Smarter Than Him
A Modern-Day Stoic Code of Conduct from The Meditations
Context: I took a deep dive on Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics this summer while I had a some time to read in between semesters.
While I was leafing through the pages of several much older biographies of MA I stumbled upon what can best be described as an attempt at a Stoic code of conduct written by biographer F.H. Hayward.
“‘There was a time, long past, when fate was kind to me.’ But the truly fortunate person has created his own good fortune through good habits of the soul, good intentions, and good actions.” (The Meditations, 5.37)
A Few Thoughts On MA
From my angle Marcus Aurelius occupies an odd distinction in history and in academia.
He hasn’t been challenged all that much.
You would struggle for a long time to find an historic figure (maybe with the exception of Alfred the Great) or philosophy/ideology devoid of haters and detractors. In fact, the general course of history looks something like this:
- Somebody has an idea and writes/speaks about it.
- A bunch of people say “Hell yeah!” and run over to his or her camp.
- A bunch of people say “Eff no!” and run over and form their own camp(s).
- The camps quarrel and bicker ad infinitum.
Not so with ole Marcus and his Meditations.
Sure, there are plenty of disputes among translators, historians, and other scholars about the meaning of certain passages (there are also plenty of disagreements on which historical figures MA references within), but by and large The Meditations stand alone, unchallenged as a series of instructions on how to live.
The reason they remain unchallenged is up to you, but my best answer after reading and listening to a few things about them is this: MA wrote them to himself, for himself, as if no one else would ever read them. They were his own instructions; a series of reminders and admonitions for stepping out line. Almost like a toolkit to reference in times of uncertainty, anxiety, grief, regret, sloth, and impatience.
The guy was profoundly human — human enough that he needed to remind himself not to suck at being a human.
“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” —Plato, Plato’s Republic
Imagine a man in control of two-thirds of the known world’s population, who was responsible for the deaths of millions, while suffering from chronic disease and pain, while enduring the loss of at least four of his children, while living with a spouse who was rumored to be unfaithful to him and a brother who would eventually betray him.
All of this with a growing sense of certainty that the throne would pass to his incompetent and deranged son.
All of this in a time of war and political strife.
Marcus Aurelius lived at some of the greatest possible extremes of the human experience and was self-aware enough to sit down and write about what he was experiencing and how he felt about it. This is why The Meditations is valuable literature. The book is one man’s attempt at unpacking how he felt about his own life and instructing himself on how to act with poise and grace in challenging times — indeed, probably some of the most challenging times that any human has ever lived through. This kind of writing is a model for the rest of us.
If you want to get a better look at Stoicism you don’t need to look much further than the works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
If you’re curious check out Letters from a Stoic, On the Shortness of Life, Discourses and Selected Writings, and The Meditations.
If you’re really curious I also took Ryan Holiday’s advice and read Essays by Michel de Montaigne and both of Pierre Hadot’s books The Inner Citadel and Philosophy as a Way of Life. I enjoyed reading Needleman and Piazza’s translation of The Meditations from which I’ve quoted extensively here. Technically I cheated as this translation only includes what they found to be the most instructive passages from the book. I love how it is organized though and its been great to keep in my pocket.
The Core Tenets of Marcus’ Stoicism
According to what I’ve read, these are the key principles that I’ve found best represent the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius:
- The world we observe is organized by a guiding force. The Stoics call this logos.
- Humans have reason. By exercising our reason we can act in accordance with Nature. Acting in accordance with Nature = practicing virtue.
- What happens to us is up to Nature’s discretion, however our response to Nature is entirely our own to decide. In other words, you decide what things mean to you and how you will react to them. The capacity to have the decision to act (or not act) in response to something out of our control is virtuous.
- Stuff is impermanent and uncertain.
- Because stuff is impermanent and uncertain, we ought to accept stuff that happens outside of our control with patience and even indifference.
- Waste not. Especially energy and decision-making power/ability.
I emboldened #3 because if any of these is the most-core tenet of Stoicism, its that one.
We don’t control what happens to us, we only control how we respond to it.
From Needleman and Piazza, “When humans live in this way, the Stoics hold, they are most happy, for they are not tormented with anxiety over circumstances they cannot change. Cultivating such an attitude in the daily practice of living requires constant attention and reminders.”
Hayward’s Code and Grooving the Stoic Pattern
While I was reading away about Stoicism and its founding fathers, I wondered for awhile about the “reminders” piece from the quote above. What would I keep nearby if I wanted to keep those principles active in my mind and at-the-ready when making decisions?
I don’t have anything to support this thought (maybe you can find something?), but, in general, it is hard to change the way you think and decide things without a lot of simple exposures to whatever new philosophy or thought paradigms you’d like to employ.
“Just as doctors always keep their implements and scalpels ready at hand in case of emergency treatment, so should you have your guiding principles ready in order to understand things human and divine, and for the doing of everything, even the smallest deed, being aware at all times of the bond that unites these two realms. For you can never do anything well which concerns humans unless you consult the divine; nor can you do anything well concerning the divine without first consulting the human realm.” (The Meditations, 3.13)
One of my favorite strength coaches, Pavel, likes to call this “grooving the pattern” or “greasing the groove”.
If you want to be good at pullups, you gotta do ‘em. Regularly. Every time you walk through a doorframe or pass a pullup bar, you should take a few. Not to failure or anything, just a few to remind your brain and central nervous system how to perform the pattern so that in times of duress (say a max set on test day) you will perform effectively.
The same, I understand from what I’ve read lately, goes for decision-making and thinking in general. Everyone from Charles Duhigg to Dan Pink to Tim Ferriss is telling me that I’m constantly operating from a decision-making deficit. From the second I wake up until the second I fall asleep (and, much to my dismay, while I sleep as well) I’m subjecting my self to decisions. And every last tiny decision counts against my total allowance for the day.
These folks say that any time I decide something these points go away. And they’re hard to get back. With that in mind, it stands to reason that I may well be operating at a deficit when times of duress crop up and my morals are tested.
To “groove the pattern” its been helpful to keep small axioms and maxims around. I decorate the inside of my weekly planners and the walls around my workspace with words and lists that resonate with me so that I can give them a glance occasionally in idle time. I’m sure many of you do the same.
A few thoughts I keep close by:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently act frankly; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In other words, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.” —Bruce Lee
“Simplify, simplify.” —Henry David Thoreau
“One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, in response.
Thomas Jefferson’s Canons of Conduct —
Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
Never spend your money before you have it.
Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
We never repent of having eaten too little.
Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
Take things always by their smooth handle.
When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.
You get the deal.
To my good fortune, (honestly it was pure luck that I found the book at all…a story for another time) I stumbled upon an 80-year-old book at the UGA library.
As it turns out author F. H. Hayward had high a opinion of Marcus Aurelius and a high opinion of keeping maxims to live by on hand as well. In chapter 4 of his 1935 biography of MA entitled, Marcus Aurelius: A Savior of Men, Hayward had the following to say:
“Marcus, though probably less under the sway of impulse and passion than any man in history, had no practical use for the doctrine that human instincts are so trustworthy as to need no training. True, he held to the Stoic doctrine that the soul was a spark of the divine, but it was a spark hidden in an earthly vessel, and it needed some fanning to bring in to flame and some protection from the gusts that might extinguish it. For a man to have been effectively taught by parents or professors was consequently one of the greatest causes of Thanksgiving.” (Hayward, 68)
In order that his readers might benefit from them, Hayward set out to extract small stoic reminders from Marcus’ writings to “fan the flame”. Particularly so from Book 1 where Marcus takes special care to credit his family, friends, and, most notably, his mentors (including Rusticus, Diognetus, and the great Fronto) for what he had learned up to that point in his life. From Hayward:
“I have been merciful to the reader, and have stopped short before doubling the Decalogue by reaching the number twenty; but it was really necessary to convey the impression of Stoicism as a body of practical precepts of conduct, and of Marcus as an elaborator and practicer of them…I shall be surprised if the reader himself does not, out of the few simple precepts of this imperfect chapter, pick up one that will prove a blessed stimulus or a timely reminder in the pilgrimage of his life.” (Hayward 68)
So here they are — 17 short precepts of Stoic conduct to aid the person endeavoring toward living a just and virtuous life. I also went back through The Meditations one more time and paired most phrases with some of Marcus’ own words.
1. Love toil.
“Be like the jutting rock against which waves are constantly crashing, and all around it the frothing foam of the waters then settles back down. ‘Oh, I am so unfortunate that this has happened to me.’ Not at all, but rather ‘How fortunate I am that, even though this has happened to me, I continue uninjured, neither terrified by the present, not in fear of the future.’ So such a thing could happen to anyone, but not just anyone would persevere unharmed…For the remainder of your life, whenever anything causes pain for you, make use of this principle: ‘This is not unfortunate. Indeed, to bear such things nobly is good fortune.’” (4.49)
“Whether you are shivering with cold or too hot, sleepy or wide awake, spoken well of or badly, dying, or doing anything else, do not let it interfere with doing what is right. For whatever causes us to die is also one of life’s processes. Even for this, nothing more is required of us than to accomplish the task at hand.” (6.2)
“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it is impossible for any human bing; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.” (6.19)
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Forgot to mark this passage and for the life of me, haven’t been able to dig it back up. Anyone got it?)
2. Simplify. Have few wants.
“It is always within your power to make life flow favorably if you can choose the right path, that is, if you can think and act rightly. Both the gods and humans (who are creatures instilled with Reason) have these characteristics in common: the ability to not be hindered by externals, and to understand that the Good consists in the cultivation of a just attitude and just actions, and to limit one’s desire according to this.” (5.34)
3. Do your own work…well.
“It has been said, ‘If you want to be content, occupy yourself with few things.’ But it is perhaps better to say ‘Do what is necessary, and what Reason requires of a creature who is made for society — do whatever it demands.’ For this brings the contentment which comes from doing things well, and doing only a few things. Since most of what we say and do is entirely unnecessary, if a person could get rid of these, he would have more leisure and be in less of a state of confusion. Therefore we all must remember to ask ourselves: ‘Is this one of the truly necessary things?’ But we must leave aside not only unnecessary activities but even unnecessary thoughts, so that unnecessary activities do not follow from them.” (4.24)
“Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one.” (10.16)
4. Turn a deaf ear to slander.
“Everything which results in something beautiful is itself beautiful and is complete in itself, with praise holding no essential role. Therefore, whatever is praised becomes neither better nor worse because it is or is not praised. I assert this also of things which are commonly called beautiful, such as material things and the various arts and crafts. Does that which is beautiful really need anything in addition? No—no more than Law does; no more than Truth, no more than kindness, than modesty. Which of these is beautiful or ugly on account of being either praised or slandered? Does an emerald become ugly if it is not admired? What about gold, ivory, royal purple dye, the lyre, the sword, or a flower?” (4.20)
“All that happens is just as ordinary and familiar as the rose in springtime and fruit in summer. So are sickness and death, slander and deceit, and whatever else cheers or saddens foolish people.” (4.44)
“Judge every single word or deed that is in accordance with Nature as worthy of you, and do not trouble yourself if reproach or gossip should follow; but rather, if something noble is to be done or said, do not judge yourself unworthy of doing or saying it. For others have their own ruling part and follow their own particular inclinations, to which you should not direct your gaze but continue on your straight path, following both your own personal nature and the Universal Nature, for the paths of both of these are actually one.” (5.3)
5. Do not be captious or pedantic.
“Always look to what is inside. Never allow the true essence and worth of a thing to escape you.” (6.3)
6. Be considerate in correcting others.
“How cruel not to allow people to pursue what appears proper and beneficial to them. Yet in a sense you prevent them from doing just this when you are irritated at their mistake; for they are certainly drawn toward what seems proper and beneficial to them. ‘But they are mistaken,’ you might say. Then teach and enlighten them, but don’t be irritated.” (6.27)
“Whenever you notice someone else going astray, immediately turn and examine how you yourself have gone astray, for example, esteeming money, pleasure, reputation, or something else, as if it were the highest good. Examine yourself in this way and you will quickly forget your anger. Then, consider that the person who has gone astray has been compelled to do so, for what else could he do? But if you are able, remove that in him which is subject to compulsion.” (10.30)
7. Not to be taken up with trifles.
“The person who pines after some sort of lasting fame does not realize that each person who remembers him will themselves soon be dead; and then the person who continues the memory from them, until all memory of the person is extinguished as though in a relay race, in which the torch goes out right after it flares up. But even suppose that those who remember you might be immortal, and so the memory will be immortal. What good is that to you? I shouldn’t even have to mention that all this is worth nothing to a dead man. But what good is it even to the living, except in some inconsequential way? For you forsake the opportunity afforded by your natural human gifts, in order to grasp onto the future gossip of others.” (4.19)
“Do not give up or be disgusted and impatient with yourself if you do not act from right principles in every situation; but having been driven off course, return again and rejoice if most of your actions are worthy of a human being, and love that to which you are returning. Do not come back to philosophy as a child returns to a harsh schoolmaster but rather as sore-eyed people turn to sponges and egg whites, as one sick man turns to plaster, and another to healing ointments. For to obey the order of the universe is no heroic deed or struggle. But in so doing you will find tranquility.” (5.9)
8. To set his heart upon a pallet bed and pelt.
“From Diognetus…to desire only a simple cot and animal skin for my bed, and only what is necessary for the Greek discipline of philosophy.” (1.6)
9. Not to resent plain speaking.
“How worthless and deceitful is the person who says: ‘I have decided to be straightforward in my dealings with you.’ What are you doing, my good man? There is no need to say this in advance. It will soon show itself; it might as well be written on one’s forehead. The voice has the power to shine at once through the eyes, just as the beloved immediately knows everything from the mere glance of the lover. The good and straightforward person should resemble one who stinks of goat, in the sense that whoever comes close will immediately sense him, whether they want to or not. But a contrived simplicity is like a dagger. Nothing is more shameful than the wolf’s friendship; avoid this most of all. The good, simple, and kind person has all these qualities in the eyes, and no one can fail to see it.” (11.15)
10. Meet offenders half-way.
“Begin each day by saying to yourself: Today I am going to encounter people who are ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, ad hostile. People have these characteristics because they do not understand what is good and what is bad. But insofar as I have comprehended the true nature of what is bad, that it is shameful, and the true nature of the person who has gone astray: that he is just like me, not only in the physical sense but also with respect to Intelligence and having a portion of the divine — insofar as I have comprehended all this, I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no one else can involve me in what is shameful and debasing, nor can I be angry with my fellow man or hate him, for we have been made for cooperation, just like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, and the upper and lower teeth. To hinder one another, then, is contrary to Nature, and this is exactly what happens when we are angry and turn away from each other.” (2.1)
“Whenever someone blames or hates you, or if anyone should express such sentiments, go directly to their souls, pass into them, and see who they really are. You will then see that you do not have to trouble yourself about what such people may think of you. However, you must be kind to them, for they too are your natural friends.” (9.27)
11. Keep clear of affectation and ostentation.
“As Epictetus said, you are a tiny little soul propping up a corpse.” (4.41)
“Receive without conceit; release without a struggle.” (8.33)
“Do you desire to be praise by a man who curses himself three times every hour? Do you desire to gain the approval of people who do not even approve of themselves?” (8.53)
12. Be thorough in thought.
“Revere your capacity for making decisions. Everything depends on this alone, so that your guiding part does not make a decision that is contrary either to Nature or to your makeup as a being endowed with reason. This demands freedom from rash judgments, fellowship with others, and obedience toward the gods.” (3.9)
“Whatever kind of impressions you receive most often, so too will be your mind, for the soul is dyed with the color of one’s impressions. Therefore, color your soul with continuous thoughts like these: wherever there is life, there, too, the good life is possible; there is life in the royal halls, and so even in the royal halls it is possible to live rightly.” (5.16)
13. Praise one’s teachers.
14. Love one’s children.
15. Cultivate and eager confidence in people.
“Consider often the connection of all things in the Cosmos and their relationship with each other. For in a way all things are mutually intertwined, and thus according to this there is a natural inclination, or love, that links everything together. For things follow another by reason of their attunement, the common spirit that breathes through them, and the unity of all being.” (6.38)
“Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, consider the good qualities of your companions, for example, the energy of one, the modesty of another; for nothing cheers the heart as much as the images of excellence reflected in the character of our companions, all brought before us as fully as possible. Therefore, keep these images ready at hand.” (6.48)
“When studying mankind, it is necessary to examine earthly matters as if from above, looking down upon herds, armies, farms, unions, and separations, births and deaths, the noisy courtrooms and deserted places, foreign peoples of all kinds, celebrations, mournings, marketplaces — all as a mixture and a harmonious order that is made from opposites.” (7.48)
16. Cultivate an openness of attitude.
“Remember how long you have been putting these things off, and how often you have received an opportunity from the gods and have not made use of it. By now you ought to realize what cosmos you are a part of, and what divine administrator you owe your existence to, and that an end to your time here has been marked out, and if you do not use this time for clearing the clouds from your mind, it will be gone, and so will you.” (2.4)
“Recall to your mind all that you have passed through and all that you have been able to endure; and that the story of your life will soon come to an end, and your duty will be accomplished. Recall, too, all the beautiful things you have seen and how many pleasures and pains you have seen through, how many honors you have turned away from, and how much unkindness you have repaid with kindness.” (5.31)
17. Do your duty without grumbling.
“Never consider anything to be beneficial to you, which could ever compel you to violate your faith in yourself, to abandon your modesty, to hate anybody, to be overly suspicious, cursing, disingenuous, or to lust after anything which must be hidden behind walls or veils. For the person who has chosen his own intelligence and inner spirit, and the sacred reveling in this kind of excellence, does not play a tragic role, does not groan with lament, and has no need of either complete solitude or excessive company. Most important, such a person will live life neither chasing it nor fleeing from it. Also, such a person does not care at all whether his soul is kept contained in the body for a long or short span of time, for even if he must depart at once, he will do this exactly as he would accomplish any deed which can be done in a self-respecting and orderly manner, throughout one’s life watching out for this alone: that the mind not adopt a manner of life unfit for a thinking and communal being.” (3.7)
“Early in the morning, when you are reluctant in your laziness to get up, let this thought be at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being.’ Even though I know this, why am I still resentful if I am going out to do that for which I was born and that for which I was brought into the Cosmos? Or was I created so that I could lie under my covers and keep warm? ‘But this is more pleasant,’ you might say. Were you brought into this world simply to feel pleasure, that is, to be acted upon by feelings rather than to act? Have you not considered the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders, and the bees, all doing their specific work and contributing to the Cosmos, each accoridng to their unique capacities?
And still you do not wish to do the work of a human being? Why are you not hurrying to do what is in accordance with your nature? ‘But one must also rest.’ I agree, but Nature has set limits to this, too, just as she has set limits to eating and drinking, and in these you go well beyond the limits. In your actions, however, you stay well within the limits of what you are capable of. You do not love yourself, or else you surely would love your nature and what it intends for you.” (5.1)
“Are my actions appropriate for a communal being? If so I have my reward.” (11.4)
What a great list to keep around to glance at occasionally.
I titled these thoughts “What Marcus Aurelius Learned From People That Were Smarter Than Him” because I have a feeling he would’ve attributed what I’ve shared with you here to everyone that invested in him. There is a kind of communal knowledge and understanding that we tap into when we interact with folks. Its a difficult thing to explain, but Marcus has done well to attempt to explain it in The Meditations.
If you’d like, keep this list close to you:
- Love toil.
- Simplify. Have few wants.
- Do your own work…well.
- Turn a deaf ear to slander.
- Do not be captious or pedantic.
- Be considerate in correcting others.
- Not to be taken up with trifles.
- To set your heart upon a pallet bed and pelt.
- Not to resent plain speaking.
- Meet offenders half-way.
- Keep clear of affectation and ostentation.
- Be thorough in thought.
- Praise one’s teachers.
- Love one’s children.
- Cultivate an eager confidence in people.
- Cultivate openness of attitude.
- Do your duty without grumbling.
I’ll finish out by asking this of you:
What would you add?
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
Thanks for reading! Here’s a short list of all the stuff I’ve cited here and other interesting things for you to read.
- Marcus Aurelius: Savior of Men, Sixteenth Emperor of Rome by Frank Herbert Hayward
- The Essential Marcus Aurelius by Jacob Needleman and John Piazza
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
- On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
- Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus
- The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot
- Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot
- How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
- A Practical Philosophy Reading List by Ryan Holiday
- Books to Base Your Life On by Ryan Holiday
I’ll continue to add to this list of resources as I read great stuff. Please add your own — anything that you think attempts an answer at the “How to live?” question is welcome here.