- Marcus Aurelius was a trained philosopher who applied his knowledge to his benevolent rule.
- While leading a defensive war in central Europe, the emperor kept a diary in which he offered himself useful life advice.
- Among the inspiring aphorisms in The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius teaches readers how to drag themselves out of bed when they would rather stay under the covers.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was emperor of Rome from 161 AD until his death in 180. The last in a series of rulers that historians now refer to as the Five Good Emperors, he was chosen as imperial heir when he was still a child. Raised with his future job in mind, Aurelius was pulled out of the empire’s questionable public school system and educated at home by Greek tutors and Stoic philosophers.
As intended, this world-class education ended up having a positive influence over Marcus Aurelius’ reign. His decisions were informed not by lust or jealousy or greed — as had been the case for many Julio-Claudian emperors — but by his deep understanding of law and logic. Often cited as the very embodiment of Plato’s “philosopher-king,” Marcus Aurelius always weighed his options, acting only when he felt he was making the right call.
Glimpses of the emperor’s internal dialogue are revealed to us through The Meditations, a diary that Marcus Aurelius kept up during his military campaigns in central Europe. The contents of the diary — a collection of aphorisms on topics such as the shortness of life, self-acceptance, and the relationship between reason and emotion — were, in all likelihood, never meant to be published. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius wrote The Meditations not to enlighten others, but to help himself carry the weight of his imperial responsibilities.
Both Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations occupy an important role in the history of Stoicism. This school of thought, founded in ancient Greece in the third century BC by Zeno of Citium, is very much alive today. In so many words, Stoicism — and especially the Roman variety represented by Marcus Aurelius — is about helping people live fulfilling lives by maximizing positive emotions, minimizing negative ones, and cultivating a virtuous character. Throughout The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius not only asks himself how he can be a better emperor, but also what it means to be a good man in general.
Marcus Aurelius was not a morning person
According to Marcus Aurelius, self-improvement should start the moment you wake up. This was of course easier said than done. A night-owl in a society that went to bed at dusk and rose at the brink of dawn, the emperor often struggled to get out of bed in the morning. For the vast majority of Romans, waking up was not a choice. The urban poor had to get out of bed because they had to report to work. The middle-classes, who were not a part of the labor force, had to get out of bed to meet with the wealthy patrons who paid for their work-free lifestyles, and the wealthy patrons had to get out of bed to receive their middle-class clients.
As emperor, Marcus Aurelius was just about the only person in the Roman empire who didn’t have to do anything. Many of his predecessors, including Nero and Caligula, spent their reigns dodging affairs of state, loafing about their estates, and emptying the imperial treasuries — all without a word of protest from their followers. If Marcus Aurelius ever wanted to take the day off and keep sleeping, no one would have been able to stop him from doing so.
However, the emperor didn’t take days off. No matter how tired he was, he always got out of bed. In The Meditations, he reveals how he managed to motivate himself:
If his worst impulses refused to listen to reason, Marcus Aurelius would retort:
How to become invincible
For Marcus Aurelius, waking up early was about more than making the most of your day. By forcing yourself to get out of bed even when you don’t want to, you are living life the way it ought to be lived, the way — as the emperor puts it — that nature intended. In this sense, his comments on his morning routine lead into a much broader discussion about virtue, which in The Meditations is defined as the pursuit of qualities such as wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.
Marcus Aurelius, it should be noted, defines virtue in the same way as does Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as the emperor repeatedly expresses his admiration of the thinker. “Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Pompeius,” he writes in The Meditations. “What are they by comparison with Diogenes, Heraclitus, and Socrates?” According to classicist John Sellars, the emperor argues that the life of a philosopher is preferable to that of great politician’s “because it is more autonomous and involves fewer external demands.” Like Socrates, Marcus Aurelius believes that evil is a form of ignorance, and that an unflinching trust in reason can keep both at bay. Like Socrates, the emperor also believes that exercising self-control leads to both freedom and happiness. Because bodily desires can never be permanently satisfied, people should practice moderation rather than overindulgence. Marcus Aurelius harkens back to the Platonic dialogues:
This perfect and invincible spirit, the emperor explains, is the ultimate reward for those who live virtuous lives, because it renders them invulnerable to pain, suffering, discomfort, and other such negative emotions that Stoic philosophy seeks to nullify. “Provided you are doing are doing your proper work,” Marcus Aurelius concludes, “it should be indifferent to you whether you are cold or comfortably warm, whether drowsy or with sufficient sleep, whether your report is evil or good, whether you are in the act of death or doing something else.”
The emperor’s invincible spirit allowed him to endure hardships and overcome challenges that would have crushed less virtuous men. Accepting the indifference of both nature and history, Rome’s one true philosopher-king kept himself composed as he jumped from one military campaign into another, dealt with the betrayals of close friends, and processed the deaths of his loved ones.
As a result, he is not only remembered as a great emperor, but also as a good man.