Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was an honest-to-god emperor of Rome. He was also a great guy. He is said to have been “by nature a saint and sage, by profession a warrior and ruler”.

Despite being the most powerful man in the world, Marcus Aurelius lived a simple life. He advocated working hard and wanting little; in all likelihood he was miserable, though. His life was tragic. Four of his five sons died, and the survivor was Commodus, who became an emperor himself. Commodus was a dick. He liked to have ostriches and lions tied up so that he could kill them in front of a coliseum full of spectators. Manly, huh? Of course, if my dad had named me “Toiletus”, I might be a little off too.

As if a son like that were not a heavy enough burden for Marcus to bear, his time as emperor saw Rome blighted by fire, floods, earthquakes and war. It was in one of these wars that Marcus’ beloved wife, Faustina, died. Marcus himself died of chickenpox while lost in a Hungarian marsh fighting barbarians. Seriously.

Marcus Aurelius’ book is called Meditations. You and I were not meant to read it; it was his diary. As you might expect of a diary, it is a bit wordy. I have edited it down to what I think are the essentials.

Like Epicurus, the book has many principles, and is not what most philosophers would call good philosophy. Still, it is my favourite ethical philosophy—if I were to call myself anything, I would (rather immodestly) call myself a stoic.

Roughly speaking, stoics think that we make our own problems. I always use the example of a speeding ticket. If you get one, you are likely to be angry with the justice system, the cop, or even (if you’re like me) the whole world. Stoics would say that you are just making things worse: the ticket is something that happened. You cannot control it now that you have it. You can, however, control your reactions to it. Worrying about it just makes it worse.