The First Principles of Marcus Aurelius
What Marcus Aurelius can teach us about breaking events into their most basic elements
Meditations, the personal journal of Marcus Aurelius, is filled with wisdom and advice that is applicable as much today as it was when first written around 170 AD. A key element held within the Meditations is Marcus’s ability to distinguish between the events he has control over and those he does not. In Stoic philosophy this is referred to as the Dichotomy of Control. But Marcus doesn’t stop there, he dives deeper into the external things around him and breaks them down into first principles. Through his writings, we can see Marcus breaking down externals into their most basic elements for which he can then see the judgments he is applying to them. From there, he applies his understanding of them in the greater whole of his world. This provides Marcus the ability to better understand the interconnected nature of all things, and in turn, come to conclusions of how his actions have an affect on the world.
First Principles 101
First principles thinking is a practice of thinking critically about a situation and helping oneself to better identify a problem by breaking that problem into its most basic elements: what makes up this problem or event? What are the pieces that fit together to form the whole? How can I approach this differently?
Elon Musk, the famed Tesla and SpaceX founder, provides a great example of how he uses first principles thinking to better help himself analyze a problem as he demonstrated with SpaceX:
“I tend to approach things from a physics framework. And physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, OK, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2 percent of the typical price — which is a crazy ratio for a large mechanical product.”
What Musk did was:
- Break down the problem (Create a rocket for a reasonable price)
- Analyze the problem’s element (Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, titanium, copper, and carbon fiber)
- Find a solution (Buy the parts of the rocket separately and self-assemble)
By understanding the parts involved, Musk was able to reproduce a rocket for nearly a third of the cost.
First principles thinking is about reverse engineering the problem. It helps one to break-away from the noise that surrounds a situation by breaking it into its most basic elements and seeing where the solution lies. It provides an opportunity to look for a solution to the problem, rather than seeing only the problem.
First Principles in Meditations
In Meditations, Marcus is continually working to find an understanding of the world around him. This curiosity leads him to breakdown external things to their most basic elements. For example, in book six of Meditations, he writes:
“When meat and other dainties are before you, you reflect: This is dead fish, or fowl, or pig; or: This Falernian is some of the juice from a bunch of grapes; my purple robe is sheep’s wool stained with a little gore from a shellfish; copulation is friction of members and an ejaculatory discharge. Reflections of this kind go to the bottom of things, penetrating into them and exposing their real nature…” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VI.13
Marcus’s lifelong thirst for knowledge persisted up until his death in 180 AD and we can see how determined he was to understand the world and his place within it, checking his actions and judgments continually. In the journal entry above, he is digging below the surface of what things are made of because it helps him to be objective about the world around him. Marcus did not want to get caught up in the sensations which could deceive his reasoning, he wanted to be able to see the thing for what it was and be able to properly assess it before he acted.
Further within the same entry he reminds himself:
“The same process should be applied to the whole life. When a thing’s credentials look most plausible, lay it bare, observe its triviality, and strip it of the cloak of verbiage that dignifies it. Pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more elusive than when you imagine your work is most meritorious.”
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VI.13
Our Judgments of Events
It is easy for us to be swept away and take what we see as the true nature of an event. Why wouldn’t we? It is directly in front of us, but more importantly, it is easier to accept the event as it is portrayed. But this is not good practice. In order to live a life of virtue, one cannot be swept away by the facade of an event, but rather, must work to understand it.
As Epictetus, an inspiration of Marcus’s, states in Discourses:
“…in the first place, be not hurried away by excitement; but say, Semblance, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me try you.”
“Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows right perspective.”
Ryan Holiday. The Obstacle is the Way
By properly breaking down an event, we can see the underlying logic behind it. We can see why it has affected us in the way it has. This is why Marcus reminds himself to “strip it of the cloak of verbiage that dignifies it.” He wants the rawness of the stimulus, the ability to see it for what it is, he doesn’t want the flashy nature of the thing or the navel gazing aspects of it. He wants the event broken down to help him better understand and separate what it is. He wants what is at the heart of the stimulus, he wants to “lay it bare” and see what it is made up of, why he is attached to it, and why he may have thought of it in the way in which he did.
Marcus continues in Meditations, stating:
“Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations. This you can do, if you will approach each action as though it were your last, dismissing the wayward thought, the emotional recoil from the commands of reason, the desire to create an impression, the admiration of self, the discontent with your lot.”
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations.II.5
Breaking events into first principles is critical to understanding the external situation, the judgments we are placing on it, and the reasoning we conclude from it. Our goal as Stoics is to penetrate our first impressions, understanding our impulsive actions, and investigating why we feel and act the way we do.
“Have you reason? ‘I have.’ Then why not use it? If reason does its part, what more would you ask?”
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations.IV.13
Living Virtuously Through First Principles
First principles thinking is incorporated within the Four Cardinal Virtuous of Stoic philosophy specifically within Prudence (Practical Wisdom), Justice (Morality), and Temperance (Moderation).
Think of what occurs when we experience an external thing. First, we are presented with the stimulus, we then have an impulse to act according to what the stimulus is or does. From there, we create our opinions and perception of the stimulus— both in the moment and from prior history — and then we act. Sometimes we are presented with the stimulus and without thinking or knowing why, act.
The Stoic understands that we are met with the presentation of the external. The Stoic processes this as the impression is received and applies a judgment to it, good, bad, or indifferent. The Stoic knows that once reasoning takes hold, they will either accept, reject, or withhold judgment of the external. If good, the Stoic proceeds, if bad, they leave it be and relinquish the investigation that is being performed in their mind.
Think about what Marcus Aurelius said:
“First get at the nature and quality of the original cause, separate it from the material to which it has given shape, and study it; then determine the possible duration of its effects.”
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations.IX.25
Marcus Aurelius, and Stoic philosophy in general, help to teach individuals how to uncover the underlying nature of emotions and events. By breaking an emotion down and asking questions to get to the basis and understanding of why those emotions exist, one is better able to understand themselves. We can also get a better understanding for the value-judgments we place on it. By understanding the value-judgments we place on external things, we can better come to understand why they affect us in the manner in which they do.
As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself in Meditations:
“In the words of Crito the sage, ‘If thou hast eyes to see, then see.’”
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VIII.38
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