Imagine you have the power to control the entire world. Your word is law. You decide whether people live or die. At a moment’s notice, you could destroy nations, force everyone to commit suicide (if you’re a nihilist), or hire someone to think about other examples to add here. You’re basically the emperor of the world.
Such was the plight of the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome (really they were only good by comparison). His name was Marcus Aurelius, and for 19 years, he didn’t do a single thing wrong.
Let’s back up a little. Who’s this Marcus guy? Good emperors? and what do you mean 19 years?
Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome from A.D. 161–180. What you have to remember about being emperor is that you are literally the king of the known world. At this point in time, Rome had conquered everyone and everything that they could find. Sure, they knew nothing about the Chinese and vice versa, but that really just means that as far as Rome was concerned, they had conquered everything, and there was nothing not under their control. That meant that the emperor of the nation that had conquered everything was the absolute king.
As the emperor, Marcus could have anything and everything he wanted, and nobody could object (because that’s just how their society worked). Truckloads of wine? There were no trucks, but he could have every drop that Rome knew of. Gold? Every mine would be ransacked for him. Lego? Didn’t exist, but if he really wanted to, the citizens of Rome would toil day and night making little clay bricks for him to play with. Marcus had everything.
There was just one problem with the role that Marcus was stepping into. Marcus Aurelius was one of the most famous Stoic philosophers.
Because of the philosophy that Marcus followed (explaining this down below), being emperor must have been extremely painful for him. I’m breaking this down into 3 main issues - virtue, loneliness, and control.
According to the philosophy Marcus practically created, human beings should always strive to be their best selves, and to do the best things possible. This is already a hard task for normal people like you and me. It means avoiding any temptation, no matter the size, and only doing what is right. To put that into perspective - no parties, no chocolate, no infinity pools. Nothing that doesn’t add maximum value.
For me, I’m probably already failing (I’m sorry, there was chocolate in my lunchbag). Now imagine someone with Marcus’ resources. He controls the world. If he wants chocolate, he’s getting a mountain. If he wants infinity pools, he can’t have an infinite amount (which would have been ironic), but he can have as many as he wants. If he has a rival, he can have them assassinated. A friend or family member can be showered with presents. Temptation is everywhere. But Marcus can’t do any of that. He’s a man with unlimited resources (mostly). And because of his own beliefs, those resources are completely hindering him. Just imagine being in his position. You can have anything, but at the same time, you have to have nothing. That was Marcus Aurelius’ life.
Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome for 19 years. That’s 19 years of doing everything right. There’s a reason he’s one of the Five Good Emperors, I guess???
This ties in heavily with virtue, but not completely. Marcus Aurelius was literally the loneliest man ever to live during his years as emperor. First of all, there’s the virtue issue. While this doesn’t prevent him from making friends, it makes it a lot more difficult, since once you get to that level, it’s kind of hard to find a friend that shares your belief.
There’s also the fact that no one can get to his level. Marcus Aurelius is the emperor of the world. He has no equal, he can have no friends. As far as I know (which is as far as Google knows), Marcus’ only friend was a book. Yes, you heard me. A book he wrote for himself and himself only, called Meditations. It was never intended for publication, and Marcus wanted it burned when he died. Unfortunately for him, no one burned it. After all, these were the words of an emperor. Meditations is still around today (even in .pdf format!), and it’s a pretty good read! The sad thing about it is that because Marcus had no equal, the only thing he could “talk” to was his book!
Also, because he was emperor, there were always people coming to him, asking him for favours, money, friendship, none of which Marcus could offer, because of a) the virtuous nature of his philosophy, and b) his power - not just anyone can have the emperor’s power. Loneliness was probably Marcus Aurelius’ biggest issue - he had all of the power, and none of the perks.
This might not seem like an issue for Marcus Aurelius at first. After all, he controls everything! But being a stoic, Marcus taught that no one really controls everything, even him. Sure, he had a lot of influence in Rome, but at any point in time, citizens could have revolted, China could have invaded, a meteor could have struck Earth, and none of that was in Marcus’ control. He didn’t even know what a meteor was! (Or China, for that matter.)
Stoicism teaches that the only thing one has control over is your thoughts, which is why it places such a heavy emphasis on training your mind. This was also important to Marcus because he was the emperor. In order to act virtuously, he had to know everything, and know how to act accordingly.
Basically, stoicism back in Marcus Aurelius’ time meant that the emperor, the guy who controlled everything, could really only (barely) control himself.
Controlling his thoughts was also really important for Marcus, because as the emperor, if he decides to lash out at someone, his word is law. That person is probably going to die, and that’s Marcus’ fault. Both of these contribute to mastery over the mind being essential for Marcus.
Marcus Aurelius was likely the prime example of suffering. He was the man with the most power in the world, and the most tasks. In order to act virtuously, as his philosophy required him to, he had to give up literally everything else, and he did this for 19 years! He was absolutely the loneliest man on Earth, and he was still the best emperor of all. Marcus Aurelius is the ultimate example of suffering.