Marcus Aurelius on Stoicism and Leadership
Five Stoic Lessons Marcus Learned From Emperor Antoninus Pius
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was the most famous proponent of the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism. He was also one of the most powerful leaders in European history, assuming control of the Roman empire aged 39, during the height of its power.
This article explores the five key leadership qualities that Marcus talks about admiring:
- Develop your character
- Be hardworking and conscientious
- Don’t over-value praise
- Don’t be afraid of criticism
- Be content to live simply
Marcus’ own reign as emperor was notoriously challenging. After a period of exceptional peace and stability during the reign of his adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, Marcus faced a series of disasters. Shortly after he was acclaimed emperor, the River Tiber suffered one of its most severe floods ever, destroying homes and livestock, which led to a famine at Rome. Around this time, the Parthians invaded Armenia, a Roman ally, instigating a war in the east that would last five years.
Rome’s eventual victory in the Parthian War was soured when returning legionaries spread a deadly virus throughout the empire. The Antonine Plague took the lives of an estimated five million people, over the course of roughly fifteen years. To make matters worse, while the empire was struggling to recover enemy tribes along the northern frontier seized the opportunity to invade. The young King Ballomar of the Marcomanni led a vast army, which overran Pannonia and the other northern provinces. They proceeded to loot and plunder their way down the Amber Road, across the Alps, and into Italy itself, finally laying siege to the wealthy Roman city of Aquileia.
I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.
Marcus nonetheless faced these unprecedented challenges head on, with total Stoic equanimity and endurance. The Roman historian Cassius Dio could therefore conclude:
[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.
After the sudden death of his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, Marcus was unexpectedly left in sole command of the army. Rather than run the war from behind a desk back in the safety of Rome, he donned the military cape and boots and rode forth to battle. Indeed, Marcus stationed himself in the military camps along the front line throughout the Marcomannic War, in modern-day Austria, Hungary, and Serbia. With no military experience whatsoever, he found himself at the head of the largest army ever deployed on a Roman frontier, numbering approximately 140,000 men in total.
During this time Marcus wrote down his personal reflections on Stoic philosophy in a text that would later become known as The Meditations, one of the most influential spiritual and self-help classics of all time. Marcus opens the book with a chapter written in a different style from the rest. He lists the virtues or qualities he most admires from about sixteen different people: teachers or members of his family. In doing so, he was clearly attempting to study attitudes and behaviours worth emulating.
At the time of writing, Marcus had known three other Roman emperors in person: Hadrian, his adoptive grandfather; Antoninus Pius, his immediate predecessor and adoptive father; and Lucius Verus, his adoptive brother and junior co-emperor. It’s notable that Marcus virtually relegates Lucius Verus to a footnote, almost as though damning him with faint praise. Hadrian gets even worse treatment and is completely ignored, as though Marcus can’t think of anything positive to say about him at all. However, these omissions are all the more apparent because of the way Marcus heaps praise at length upon Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father and predecessor as emperor. Not only does he expend spend far more words on Antoninus here than on any other individual but Marcus returns to him later in the text, providing another list of his virtues and stating quite categorically that he views himself as the “disciple of Antoninus” in all matters.
Marcus, in other words, was carefully modelling the leadership qualities he saw exemplified in the emperor Antoninus Pius.
We also have a letter addressed to a young Marcus from his celebrated Latin rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, in which Fronto advises Marcus on writing speeches in praise of the Emperor Antoninus, who was still alive at the time. Marcus, he says, should thank his father eloquently and “be most full and copious”,
For there is nothing that you can say in all your life with more honour or more truth or more liking than that which concerns the setting forth of your father’s praises.
It’s crystal clear that, even a decade or more after his demise, Marcus was still turning to his adoptive father’s memory to find a guide and role model, particularly in relation to his duties as emperor. Marcus, in other words, was carefully modelling the leadership qualities he saw exemplified in the emperor Antoninus Pius. Although Antoninus wasn’t a Stoic, Marcus saw him as naturally embodying the sort of virtues Stoics wanted to cultivate. This seems to have been a common practice. For example, Seneca had earlier written:
We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts! (Moral Letters, 11.9)
I’ve combed through the various remarks Marcus makes about the traits in his father he most admired and discovered that they fall under a handful of broad headings. We can view these as some of the characteristics Marcus associated with the ideal leader or ruler.
1. He had equanimity and a pleasant character
Marcus mentions that he admired the emperor Antoninus Pius for being mild tempered. He became very famous for the air of serenity that accompanied his presence. Hadrian, by contrast, was notoriously volatile and quick tempered — he made people nervous. Marcus tells us that he suffered from a temper himself, which he struggled to control, so it’s tempting to imagine that he wanted to be more like Antoninus and less like Hadrian in this regard.
Marcus also said that Antoninus always seemed to be cheerful and satisfied with life. He therefore came across as very natural and agreeable in conversation, and Marcus even calls his adoptive father “sweet-natured”. He also noted that Antoninus kept very few secrets and those he did concerned matters of state. He perceived him as a genuinely pious man, while nevertheless above superstition. He had a calm and reassuring presence and it was pleasant dealing with him. It may surprise many people to know that Stoics, like Marcus, were often cheerful and pleasant company.
2. He was patient, hardworking and conscientious
Antoninus would research his decisions meticulously beforehand, minimizing the likelihood he’d have to change course at a later date. He’d therefore find himself able to stick to his original plan of action more consistently than other rulers. He wasn’t content with a superficial understanding but sought to think through his decisions very carefully, even anticipating events in the distant future. Marcus says his adoptive father would usually examine the problems he faced one aspect at a time as if he had ample time, proceeding vigorously and in a focused, organized, and determined manner. He would never allow an important decision to be made until he was satisfied that he’d given it enough thought to understand what was at stake. Once he’d determined the most rational course of action, though, he would act accordingly, ensuring that it was put into practice. He seemed to enjoy working and was therefore able to labour patiently at things for long hours, even returning to work immediately after recovering from severe bouts of headache.
He was also very prudent and conscientious in managing both his own affairs and those of others, and careful to avoid wasting public money. He was cautious about putting on crowd-pleasing spectacles or constructing public buildings. He sincerely respected the institutions of his country. He wasn’t desperate for change, for its own sake, but content to remain in the same place, working consistently on the same tasks. This was quite the opposite of Hadrian who constantly travelled and sought novelty and stimulation. Marcus admired this because Stoicism teaches us to value strength of character, and virtue, first and foremost. That leads to a hard-working attitude because taking pride in what you do is more important than avoiding discomfort.
3. He neither flattered others nor sought to win praise himself
Marcus said that Antoninus helped cure him of pride and affectation and showed him that he could live in a palace almost as if he were a common citizen, minimizing the trappings of imperial office. Antoninus was neither pretentious nor pursued acclaim. He was above flattery himself and put a stop to it at court. He didn’t try to win popularity by heaping praise on others or showering them with gifts. He had a natural lack of interest in empty fame and instead focused on doing what was actually required rather than what would win him admirers.
However, he showed loyalty and consistency in his friendships. He sought genuine friends rather than being seduced into flattering others to win fairweather friendships. He treated people justly, giving them what they deserved, and never imposed unreasonable demands on his companions. This indifference to flattery was integral to the Stoic philosophy followed by Marcus Aurelius. It’s easy to be mesmerized and lured off course by fame but the wise person remains aloof from these things and committed to doing what reason determines to be the right course of action.
4. He was unafraid of criticism
Antoninus didn’t consider himself superior to anyone and was happy to listen to whoever had potentially useful information or advice. Nevertheless, he would very carefully study the manners and actions of others to determine their character. He honoured true philosophers, but was not easily led by pseudo-intellectuals. He was ready to give way to experts on matters of law or ethics, or those who were more skilled speakers, without any envy or resentment, and he helped competent individuals to advance in their careers. Moreover, Antoninus never listened to slanderous gossip and didn’t indulge in idle complaints about others himself. Marcus was impressed by how his adoptive father tolerated freedom of speech in those who opposed his opinions and, indeed, rather than being indignant he was extremely pleased whenever anyone could show him a better way of looking at things.
“It is kingly to do good and yet be spoken of ill.”
Antoninus was therefore neither timid nor aggressive; neither a sloppy thinker, like the Sophists, nor a pedant. He would challenge other people’s views where necessary but was also willing and able to accept criticism from others. For example, Marcus says his adoptive father endured a considerable amount of criticism for being too cautious with regard to public expenditure, etc. He patiently put up with individuals who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return. In The Mediations, Marcus quotes an old saying from Antisthenes: “It is kingly to do good and yet be spoken of ill” (7.36). In his play Hercules Furens, the Stoic philosopher Seneca likewise wrote “’Tis the first art of kings, the power to suffer hate.” A truly wise leader, in other words, must be able to ignore insults and be tolerant of criticism.
5. He was content with simple things in life
Marcus was impressed by how little was necessary to satisfy Antoninus, in terms of his lodgings, bed, dress, food, servants, etc. He looked after his own health in a simple down-to-earth way, without becoming overly-preoccupied with diet or exercise. When he had access to luxuries he enjoyed them without any reservations but when he didn’t have them he didn’t want them. Marcus says that like Socrates, Antoninus was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from and cannot enjoy without excess. However, to be strong enough both to bear abstaining from desires and yet sober enough to enjoy satisfying them without excess is the mark of a perfect and invincible soul, he says. In other words, this sort of moderation and self-discipline was integral to Stoic philosophy and its conception of leadership.
Socrates himself had long ago made the point that, on reflection, nobody with any sense would rather entrust the care of their loved ones to someone reckless who lacks self-control than to someone self-disciplined and moderate. He concluded that these are obviously traits we should desire in any leader because it’s impossible to act consistently in accord with wisdom if we lack self-control. Marcus clearly saw Antoninus as embodying the sort of self-mastery required for a leader to live consistently in accord with wisdom and justice.
The Historia Augusta portrays the emperor Antoninus’ character as a ruler in a way that’s broadly consistent with Marcus’ personal notes on him in The Meditations:
In personal appearance he was strikingly handsome, in natural talent brilliant, in temperament kindly; he was aristocratic in countenance and calm in nature, a singularly gifted speaker and an elegant scholar, conspicuously thrifty, a conscientious land-holder, gentle, generous, and mindful of others’ rights.
It adds that he “possessed all these qualities, moreover, in the proper mean and without ostentation”, and was praiseworthy in every conceivable respect. Moreover, “for three and twenty years [Marcus Aurelius] conducted himself in his [adoptive] father’s home in such a manner that [Antoninus] Pius felt more affection for him day by day, and never in all these years, save for two nights on different occasions, remained away from him”. By all accounts, therefore, Antoninus was both an excellent father and a role model to Marcus, especially in his capacity as a leader and the emperor of Rome.
See my latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, for a more in-depth discussion of Marcus Aurelius’ life and use of Stoic philosophy.