Marcus Aurelius (26 April 121 – 17 March 180 ACE) was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. He ruled with Lucius Verus as co-emperor from 161 until Verus’ death in 169. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors. He was a practitioner of Stoicism, and his untitled writing, commonly known as Meditations, is a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of philosophy.
Meditations (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν [Ta eis heauton] literally “[those which are] to himself”) is a series of personal writings, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. It is possible that large portions of the work were written at Sirmium, where he spent much time planning military campaigns from 170 to 180. Some of it was written while he was positioned at Aquincum on campaign in Pannonia, the first book was written when he was campaigning against the Quadi on the river Granova (modern-day Hron) and the second book was written at Carnuntum. These writings take the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs.
A central theme to Meditations is the importance of analyzing one’s judgment of self and others and the development of a cosmic perspective. As he said “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite“. He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “Being a good man“.
His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos. This allows one to rise above faulty perceptions of “good” and “bad“.
Marcus Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain his after death; both Dio and the biographer call him “the philosopher“. Christians such as Athenagoras and Melito gave him the title, too. The last named went so far as to call Marcus Aurelius “more philanthropic and philosophic” than Antoninus Pius and Hadrian, and set him against the persecuting emperors Domitian and Nero to make the contrast bolder. “Alone of the emperors,” wrote the historian Herodian, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.” Marcus Aurelius’ legacy is tragic, because the emperor’s “Stoic philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death” (Iain King).
Throughout Meditations, Marcus Aurelius is active in pointing out the value of looking beyond what we intuitively see on the surface in daily life to better understand the world. In his own words: “Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”
Although attention doesn’t automatically lend itself to each relevant piece of information, we can train our brain to be more proactive. By keeping this fact at the top of our mind, we can paint a more representative picture of the world. That’s where awareness and clear thinking begin.
One of the cornerstones of awareness is objectivity. It’s a kind of neutrality that aims to see the world as it is and not through personal judgment and bias. It’s not easy to cultivate. By design, our senses absorb information in relation to where we are, what we’re doing, and how we feel. The world bombards us with stimuli, and these stimuli follow a different neural pathway in each of us. We all make sense of them differently.
The same reasoning applies to people. Despite the intensity with which we feel and sense, much of what happens in the broader world isn’t just about us. There’s a larger picture, and there’s more going on. The sooner we can put aside our personal biases, the sooner we can understand reality for what it is rather than how we feel about it. It’s a crucial distinction.
Throughout his work, one thing that stands out about Marcus Aurelius is his profound ability to step away and out of his own mind and see the world and himself without emotional attachment. It helps explain the depth of his insights.
He was able to expand his circle of awareness by tuning himself out and by aspiring to see things from a pair of eyes with more than just a singular perspective.
One of the distinguishing aspects of Meditations is that Marcus Aurelius didn’t write it for anyone other than himself; it appears to be a very personal journal. There isn’t much coherence or structure to how it’s presented. This tells us that his purpose for writing wasn’t necessarily to share his wisdom, but it was likely to practice clearing out and organizing his own mind.
Marcus Aurelius is known today as what Plato characterized as a Philosopher King. A political leader who actively aspired to wisdom and was primarily driven towards knowledge. A leader who relentlessly asked what it means to live well.
More than his virtues and desires, however, what drove Marcus Aurelius to successfully lead one of the most powerful empires in history was his ability to leverage the clarity of his mind. The scope of your awareness defines the outer limit of what you can accomplish. The more you know, the more accurately you can understand your surroundings. The better you are at organizing your thoughts, the more possibilities lie ahead of you.
His legacy would serve well our leaders today –and in the future…