During my retirement, I have ventured into reading about subjects I find of interest including ancient Greek stoic philosophy.  Its purpose is the development of self-control and to help a person develop clear judgment and inner calm. Together with mindfulness, it aims to train one’s attention to remain in the present moment.  

The term “stoic” was taken from the “stoa poikile” (meaning painted porch” or “colonnade”) where Zeno of Citium used to teach.  

Marcus Aurelius is considered one of the greatest stoic philosophers.  His stoic ideas focus on freeing men from the pains and pleasures of the material world and his overall message is that the only way a man can be harmed is to allow his reactions to overpower him.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome from March 7, 161, until his death on March 17, 180, was born Marcus Annius Verus in Rome on April 26, 121, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. His parents were extremely wealthy and were close to the imperial court. His father died when Marcus was still a child, and Marcus was brought up by his grandfather, an intimate of the emperor.

He received the typical education of a well-born young Roman, and his privileged further education, under no fewer than 18 tutors, consisted largely of rhetoric and philosophy. Some of the correspondence between him and one of his teachers of rhetoric, Fronto, has survived, and the letters show Marcus to have been an intense, open-hearted, bookish young man.

Under Hadrian and then Antoninus, Marcus was rapidly promoted through the ranks of the political hierarchy, learning the skills required to administer the city of Rome and its empire, and he succeeded Antoninus on the emperor’s death of old age on March 7, 161.

He shed the name “Verus” — or rather passed it on to Lucius, who became Lucius Aurelius Verus — and took “Antoninus” instead,  so that he was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

His official name was therefore Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, the 16th emperor of Rome. His first move was to make his brother joint emperor, and so Lucius remained until his death left Marcus as sole emperor for the final 11 years of his reign. This was the first time there had been two emperors, but Marcus made it clear that he was senior (as Antoninus had intended), not least by having Lucius become his son-in-law by marrying his daughter Lucilla. Marcus occupied the imperial throne for 19 years.

Marcus died, probably at Sirmium, in 180, just a few weeks short of his 59th birthday. His health had never been strong;  he was probably consumptive (had tuberculosis) and had perhaps been weakened by the plague that was still ravaging the empire.

Meditations

Marcus’ work, Meditations, is a series of his personal writings which embody his ideas on stoic philosophy.  It was split into 12 books, much written in the last decade of his life while he was leading the Roman army on campaigns against Germanic tribes encroaching Rome’s borders.  

Marcus was in his 40s when the books were written.  They are not diaries and there are almost no mentions of the historical events he was actively shaping by day.

Instead, they are admonishments with himself to be wiser, kinder, more focused, less irritable; not intended for anyone to see, let alone be published. Their intimacy makes eavesdropping on them across the centuries even more atmospheric.  Many entries start with “Remember,” “Keep in Mind” and “Do not forget,” while some are written in dialogue with himself.

Teachings

Today, Stoicism has reemerged as an approach to life. As people have learned more about its teachings and principles, they have realized that it does not advocate an emotionless, rational existence. The goals are happiness, emotional resilience, and practical techniques to take on the challenges of life in a meaningful way.  

According to the author of The Leader’s Mind, “Stoic philosophy teaches us not to suppress our unhealthy emotions, but to transform them into healthy ones by rationally challenging value judgments and other beliefs on which they are bases.”   

Here are just a few of his remarkable  teachings: 1. If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way. 2. Our inward power turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of a conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it, and makes it burn still higher. 3. To welcome with affection what is sent by fate.  Not to stain or disturb the spirit within him with a mess of false beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by calmly obeying God, saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust.

Marcus never really talks about Roman citizens in the Meditations, but he talks about a lot, on almost every page, about social virtue, cosmopolitanism, natural affection, the virtue of justice, fairness, beneficence and generosity.  

Final Thoughts

One of the best books to learn more about the man and Roman philosophy is “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.”

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.



Marcus Aurelius’s Teachings Would Benefit All Of Us