“If someone can show me that what I think or do is not right, then I will happily change, for I seek truth. No one has ever really been harmed by truth, but people who continue in self-deception and ignorance harm themselves.”
Born today in 121, Marcus Aurelius reigned as Roman emperor from 161–80.
Five centuries before, Plato had written that utopia would come when “philosophers become kings” or when “those now called kings… genuinely and adequately philosophize.”
Aurelius made a serious effort to achieve that ideal. He worked hard and ruled well, but greatness and utopia eluded him and the empire.
His ideas, however, endure. Since his youth, Aurelius had studied Stoic philosophy. During the last decade of his reign, he compiled some notes to record his efforts to apply philosophy in his life and work.
Those notes outlined a practical philosophy of self-help that continues to resonate with modern sensibilities, for three main reasons.
First, Stoicism strongly influenced Christian theology and the development of Western civilization.
Second, his Meditations read like an unusually rigorous self-help book. Aurelius accessibly applies Stoic insights to help himself (and his readers) cope with the eternal quotidian crises of the human condition.
Third, Aurelius (and other Stoics) anticipated modern cognitive psychology by articulating its central premise: that how we think dictates how we feel. Or, as Aurelius put it:
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”
“Never desire anything that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.”
“Look within. A fountain of good will bubble up if you just keep digging.”
“You invite suffering if you plan to be good tomorrow instead of choosing to be good today.”
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work, as a human being. Why should I complain about doing what I was brought into the world to do? Or was I created for huddling under the blankets to stay warm?’”
“People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it; they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?”
“In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.”
“Every soul, the philosopher says, is involuntarily deprived of truth; consequently, in the same way it is deprived of justice and temperance and benevolence and everything of the kind. It is most necessary to keep this in mind, for it will make you gentler towards all.”
“It is man’s peculiar duty to love even those who wrong him.”
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”
“Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye…. [That means, “Don’t let power go to your head.”] Keep yourself therefore simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods; save men. Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence: a holy disposition and neighborly acts.”
“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human — however imperfectly — and fully embrace the task at hand.”
“A horse at the end of the race… A dog when the hunt is over… A bee with its honey stored… And a human being after helping others. They don’t make a fuss about it. They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season. We should be like that. Acting almost unconsciously.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
“Mark how fleeting and paltry is the estate of man — yesterday in embryo, tomorrow a mummy or ashes. So for the hairsbreadth of time assigned to thee, live rationally, and part with life cheerfully, as drops the ripe olive, extolling the season that bore it and the tree that matured it.”