Five Things Marcus Aurelius Would Want To Share With Us Today

How to think like a Roman emperor in today’s world.

George J. Ziogas
Jan 24 · 7 min read
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Image: rarrarorro/Adobe Stock

It’s humbling to think that what a Roman emperor wrote long ago for his own use can still be meaningful to those far removed from him in time and space. But the two thousand year old advice of Marcus Aurelius still remains profoundly relevant today. Because he recorded his observations on life and personal thoughts in a journal, a journal that survives to this day as one of the most loved self-help and philosophical classics of all time.

A journal that might not have been meant for publication but found its way into the world. Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, has been hailed as the last of Rome’s five good emperors and in his journal, he reflected on the many lessons his life had taught him. So, it’s both comforting and heartwarming to think about the things that Marcus Aurelius would want to share with us today.

The journal that Aurelius titled To Himself is now known as Meditations and at the beginning of 2020 its sales were soaring and they only grew as the COVID crisis took hold. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Emperor’s words would offer wisdom and comfort to a world desperately in need of just that.

We know much about his life and how he lived because of the words he wrote in Meditations, which means we can infer a lot about the advice he would offer you and I today.

Aurelius had no more hours in the day to succeed than you, he simply found a way to make sure that he got it all done.

Up and at ’Em, There’s Work to Be Done

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”… Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?” — Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius rose at dawn and when he did, he immediately got to work. He wrote wistfully about the desire to stay in bed and huddle beneath the covers, but a quick look around the natural world was proof of every other creature attempting to set the world to right as best as they could. Therefore, why would you not do the same? With the natural world wasting no time, Aurelius felt compelled to do the same.

So, I ask you — what’s your role as a human being, and why are you still in bed instead of getting up and at it? We were born to keep the world turning and you can’t do that huddled under the covers trying to shut the world out. There’s no need to feel bad if you forget, the purpose of this piece of advice was to serve as a reminder, one that even Marcus Aurelius needed from time to time.

What were you created for? We all have our purpose, we all have our duties — so what are you waiting for?

If You Want to Live a Good Life, Sit down and Write

“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”… “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”… “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius

It should come as no surprise that Marcus Aurelius would urge someone to maintain a journal, the reason we know he would is because of his own dedication to doing so. The bigger point, however, is why?

Journaling isn’t just a great way to reflect on your days, it’s an exercise in self-awareness. Your journal can help you train and discipline yourself. Your journal isn’t about poetry, it’s about straightforward writing to get it all out there. Perhaps the motivation to journal daily is what can rouse you from your slumber each morning, as this does seem to be the time of day Aurelius did most of his writing.

It’s an opportunity to consider what you may face throughout the day, what’s on your agenda, and prepare yourself for what may come. Ultimately, you can use your journal much like Aurelius did, as a method of self-auditing your behavior.

We could all use a bit of training in terms of discipline and awareness, and journaling is an excellent way to do that and ensure you succeed. If it isn’t something that appeals to you, start by making a note of just three things you enjoy or look forward to. Or attempt to write a few sentences of reflection about your day.

Mentally Prepare Yourself for the Day Ahead

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower…” — Marcus Aurelius

When you rise each morning do you take a moment to consider what you may face? Aurelius’ thoughts on this have been written off as pessimistic, that he would steel himself to deal with arrogant, surly, ungrateful people. However, for Aurelius, this was a reality. It wasn’t a pessimistic approach, rather it was his way of preparing himself for the challenges he would face.

Now, you’re not a Roman Emperor so you likely won’t be dealing with the same level of meddling or dishonesty. However, every day presents its challenges and you must prepare to face them with aplomb. Take time to mentally prepare for whatever the day may throw at you. There are many ways you can do this, from visualization to meditation. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you are ready for anything. You can use your preparation as an opportunity to bolster your optimism.

Tackle Your Most Difficult Tasks First

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman — like a man — on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can — if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.” — Marcus Aurelius

What’s the hardest thing you have to do today? Whatever it is, do it first. Once you get the most challenging thing out of the way you pave the way for a smooth day to unfold in front of you. There’s no room for procrastination. When you put off the tough stuff you give it space to build up and create anxiety within you. Instead, set about tackling the toughest task first and focus on it wholly until it’s complete. Whatever you’re working on give it your full attention.

It’s easy to put things off. It’s easy to complain. They’re natural human reactions. However, they don’t serve you. When you put it off it invades your mind for the rest of the day until you complete it. So, why waste so much of your energy avoiding something you can simply take care of first thing? Win the biggest battle to start your day off right.

Slow Down, You Have to Make Time for Stillness

“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul…Anyone with a feeling for nature — a deeper sensitivity — will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly — things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.” — Marcus Aurelius

We live in a chaotic world and while you may not be ruling a nation you have your own struggles. It doesn’t matter what catastrophe you’re facing it’s vital that you find time to seek quiet and be still. For Aurelius, that meant engaging in active hobbies common of the time — wrestling, horseback riding, hunting, and time in the bath houses. What gives you the stillness you could so use?

Reading, writing, bubble baths, hot tubs, saunas, or jogging? Whatever it is, wherever you find that stillness, make time for it daily. You have responsibilities, you have stress, and it’s up to you to manage it and there’s only one way to do so effectively — slow down and take a moment.

Final Thoughts

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, how much money you have, or otherwise — you will die one day. We all will. In the meantime, live free and enjoy every single second.

Understanding your mortality is an important part of defining your purpose. Humans are frail creatures and with every day you live there is one less to enjoy on the other end.

Plan your day. Take breaks. Enjoy things. Build good habits. That’s what life is about and if you use the advice above you can do so and live freely while you still can. Are you putting every breath you take to good use? If not, know this — it’s not too late.


How to be your best self.

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