Philosopher. Student. Emperor. How rare of a combination is that?!
Most emperors are complete a-holes (Nero, Caligula), and most philosophers don’t seek power.
Do you get how rare a person like Marcus Aurelius is? A man dedicated to the virtues and philosophy of Stoicism, all the while having absolute power and living in a palace of pure luxury.
I can’t wrap my head around it. Aurelius is the outlier of outliers, but only one exception is enough to disprove the rule that we always hear:
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely
It’s simply not true! Point to Marcus Aurelius as an example if anyone mentions that rule to you.
It’s more accurate to say that power gives you more opportunity to do both good and evil.
The Dark Side has more temptation, and that’s why the “rule” gets so much airtime. It is hard to resist temptation when you have absolute power.
So how do you resist these temptations?
Well, my dear fellow human being, I’m glad you asked. This is a major theme of Meditations.
1. Don’t Be Vexed at Anything That Happens
This is a huge point, and Marcus Aurelius repeats it on nearly every page. Whether he’s talking about death, being offended by someone’s actions, or being assigned an unfairly large amount of homework.
(I’m just kidding about the last one. I made that up. But what an injustice!)
He uses the principles of natural contingency a lot. Basically, this means that virtually ANYTHING can happen to you at ANY time. Be prepared. It’s just the way that nature works.
Accept this, and you won’t be surprised or vexed.
In a sentence: expect the unexpected. And stop whining when things don’t go your way.
2. Embrace Death
Another thing you need to know: some info on the life of Marcus Aurelius and the state of the Roman Empire during his reign.
Marcus ruled between the years of 161-180. His reign was full of pain and disaster, yet he handled all of it extremely well.
It was constant warfare (Aurelius likely wrote this book during breaks between battles).
He had to repeatedly repel foreign invaders. Imagine people constantly coming at you from foreign nations with swords and other sharp and deadly weapons. Their intention is to kill you and your citizens. Think about that stress for a moment. This guy found some peace in that reality.
And if that weren’t enough, how about some plague? The Antonine Plague took place during his rule, killing millions of Roman citizens. It was likely a result of the foreign invaders, and it may have been the cause of death of Marcus Aurelius himself.
Knowing this brutal reality, you realize why there is so much talk of accepting death and all of its friends. Death hung over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
3. The Wrestler’s Art
The art of life more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” -Book VII, Section 61
Life is more like Mortal Kombat than Dance Dance Revolution.
I loved DDR, though. Amazing game.
Anyways, it’s true. It took me a lot of effort to find the right voice and tone to express the beautiful ideas of Marcus Aurelius in a short essay!
It took me a lot of effort to read each book/chapter and record a video on the most important ideas.
It took me a lot of effort throughout my years of schooling to learn how to read and write well enough to muster the courage to go near this book!
Just look back at your life and see all the “battles” and “campaigns” you’ve been a part of. See what I mean? The dude Marcus is right! Life is more like wrestling than dancing.
Though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know how to bust a move and break it down on the dance floor!
4. Your Ultimate Purpose in Life
In a sentence, your ultimate purpose in life: a calm disposition and a penchant to commit good social acts without drawing attention to them.
Remember: this means different things for different people. If you have a skinnier or leaner build, your social good might not be in the field of construction. Likewise, if you have no desire to read literature, you wouldn’t find yourself on my website. Your social good would be in a different field. We are not uniform.
The one common thread that can run through all of us: being ninjas of social virtue!
We can all learn to be kind without provocation.
Don’t wait for someone to be nice to you before you bestow your good will upon them.
How do you do this? It can help to pray for kindness!
It sounds strange, but our boy Marcus gives us a practical prescription for how to pray. Check it out in Book IX Section 40. I like to think of it as praying for character > results. I find it a very good idea.
Another way to keep calm and be kind is to remember all of the principles we’re talking about right now. Some examples:
If you keep death in mind, you’ll look at evil people and criminals of all sorts with a type of sadness. A sadness that recognizes when they are fighting the sands of time, desperately clinging to life, angry at the things that they have lost, lashing out in attack.
At times you might even notice the same thing in yourself. I do.
Also, remember that life is like wrestling. People who haven’t accepted this conclusion are usually bad wrestlers. They struggle constantly and lose a ton of their battles because they refuse to acknowledge that they are even participating in a battle!
Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that gal.
When you remember all of these principles, you’ll be filled with compassion, and goodness will flow forth from your being like a fountain.
Cool image, huh?
5. Be Smart
Mr. Aurelius also stresses intelligence. According to him, we’re made up of three primary parts:
2. Breath (Life)
He asserts that intelligence is the only thing that truly belongs to us and is under our control.
And if that’s all we have, it would make sense to put your energies toward mastering the art of increasing your intelligence.
So how do we do that?
Again, our fine Emperor has given us some rather interesting guidelines.
One of them is to look past first appearances. The example that I give in my video is the cashier at the grocery store. She might seem mean and distant. Your first instinct might be to get defensive. But if you look past first appearances, you might guess that she’s having a bad day, perhaps having a personal/family crisis.
Give people the benefit of the doubt!
And for God’s sake, use common sense! Sometimes it makes no sense to look past first appearances. If someone’s threatening your life, fight or run. If there’s a cucumber that’s gone bad, throw it out!
And how about the legendary MFP formula? Matter. Form Purpose.
Look around you. Pick out any object; it doesn’t matter which object. (I’m so PUNNY!!)
Got one? Great. Now think about what matter it’s made out of. Plastic? Glass? Paper (trees)? Cotton?
Now think about the form/shape of the object. Think about how it got to that form. The factory and manufacturing processes it went through. All the labor and effort it took to get the object in your immediate vicinity. Unless, of course, you’re reading this in a manufacturing plant. That would be ironic. And a very cool choice to read an article on literature/philosophy in a factory.
All of a sudden I wanna read philosophy in a factory.
Finally, think of the purpose of the object. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!
Just kidding. If you didn’t get that reference, watch Rush Hour.
You can do this with any physical object. It’s a neat little analysis trick to get past first appearances and really appreciate all of the complexity of living.
That’s how you get smart.
I would also add reading and writing to the list. Aurelius touches upon this, but not in a lot of detail. He is obviously very well educated in reading and writing, and we can infer that because he wrote this book. He also mentions his tutors in various subjects.
It’s important to realize that if a solid reading and writing education was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, it’s good enough for you and me.
This has been just a tiny glimpse into the brilliant mind of Marcus Aurelius. Read the book so that you can remember, reinforce, and actually live by his greatest principles:
1. Don’t Be Vexed at Anything That Happens
2. Embrace Death
3. Life is More Like Wrestling than Dancing
4. Remember The Purpose You Were Made For
5. Be Intelligent
Then, watch my video series as many times as you’d like.
But if there’s only one thing I hope you do after reading this article: read the book Meditations yourself.
Nothing beats reading the primary, original source.