The Secret Diary of a Stoic: Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’

An outstanding philosopher and exemplary statesman, Marcus Aurelius reveals the Stoic secrets to his success and the burdens of ruling in a highly personal, reflective, and inspiring collection of his thoughts entitled ‘Meditations.’

Referencing this statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, 19th century American writer Henry James professed, “I doubt if any statue of king or captain in the public places of the World has more to commend it to the general heart.’ Photograph used by permission of the photographer.

Time is a mere point, the senses are dull and illusory, the soul is a dream, fortune is evasive and uncertain, and life is a war. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who bore a gift for statesmanship and a penchant for philosophy, marked the closing of the Golden Age of Rome and left behind Meditations, a divine portal to his penetrating thoughts. 

In 8th grade Latin, my teacher frequently conjured stories about how great works of Latin philosophy and poetry from Seneca, Catallus, or Ovid were found by an adventurous tourist who decided to dig through the sun-dried Roman earth with a pink plastic gelato spoon only to find literary gold. I would like to imagine that Meditations, a blueprint for Stoicism and a personal diary of sorts, was found in the same way. 

In truth, religious scholars, historians, and statesmen passed down Meditations in quite a precarious manner — offhandedly storing copies in palatial libraries, citing poignant passages with a blot of drippy raven ink, and refurbishing Marcus Aurelius’s sage insights with the most fashionable ideological cushioning of the time. Now, the only nearly complete, original manuscript survives in the majestic Vatican Library.

Born in 121 C.E., Marcus Aurelius, the adopted son of the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, was raised in a haven of luxury and privilege. Destined to achieve spiritual and intellectual elevation, Marcus received a comprehensive education. Fronto, the brightest literary star of the age and a dull pedant, taught Marcus the art of rhetoric. However, Marcus soon grew disillusioned with oratory and pursued philosophy instead. 

Marcus Aurelius was drawn to the Diatribai (Discourses) of a former slave and Stoic known as Epictetus. Fascinated by ethics, Epictetus described philosophy as the mechanism by which one learns “to employ desire and aversion without hindrance,” a staple of Stoicism.

Epictetus, whose name means ‘owned,’ emphasized the value of rationality, morality, emotional equanimity, and detachment from external circumstances. Musically attuned to the mysteries of human nature, Epictetus particularly enjoyed telling his aristocratic students that they were psychologically “slaves” due to their lack of attentiveness, self-knowledge, and understanding of the world around them.

Epictetus and, by extension, Marcus Aurelius, drew inspiration from a noble line of philosophers. Zeno of Citium founded the school of Stoic philosophy at ancient agora of Athens. Zeno was drawn to the example of Socrates who was sentenced to death by the court of Athens for impiety and corrupting the youth; importantly, while his students and wife wept, Socrates comforted them and faced death with absolute composure. Thus, Zeno, the father of Stoicism, sought to create a philosophy which reflected the emotional equanimity of figures such as Socrates. 

Thus, Stoicism emphasizes the value of repressing one’s emotions and desires in favor of reason. The Stoics strove to achieve excellence of character, or virtue through a persistent process of self-improvement, philosophical contemplation, and the cultivation of kinship. Intertwined in the life and works of Cato of Unica, Brutus, and Cicero, Stoicism drew Marcus Aurelius into its distinguished circle of intellectuals and statesmen.

To his mother’s dismay, at the age of 12, Marcus Aurelius adopted the ‘Greek way of life’ and vowed to wear a thick cloak and sleep on the floor. Such practical philosophical exercises, complemented by a more traditional, liberal education, inspired Meditations, a sophisticated personal diary and the product of 40 years of exposure to the great minds of the ancient world. 

After serving as consul, Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161 AD following the death of Antonius Pius. Marcus also crowned his adopted brother Lucius Verus as co-emperor, dramatically altering the political power scheme of Ancient Rome. 

Marcus Aurelius’s reign was plagued with natural disasters, barbarian invasions, devastating famines, outbreaks of the plague, and a series of incessant floods. Moreover, Marcus faced another threat in the form of his general Avidius Cassius who, on a campaign in Antioch, declared that the emperor had perished and proclaimed himself emperor. 

This vicious cycle of struggle led Marcus to the consoling force of philosophy. He wrote that his beliefs (dogmata) were “ready at hand to effect an inward therapy and confront emergency like the ready instruments of the surgeon.” 

Thus, Marcus began writing Meditations. Because he never intended this work for publication, his philosophy is neither plagued by the rigidity of categorization into physics, ethics, and logic nor the omniscient persona of a philosopher who is conscious of his audience. Meditations provides readers with a prime vantage point to a philosophy which is both fragmented and in flux. 

Withdrawing from the burdens of rule, Marcus commences by acknowledging all those who have influenced and improved his life. He demonstrates gratitude towards his grandfather Verus who taught him the importance of “character and self-control,” his father who embodied “integrity and manliness,” and his mother who was governed by “reverence to the divine” and adhered to a simplistic mode of life. Critically, Marcus also hails his adopted father in a lengthy testament to his virtue and strength of character. 

Marcus Aurelius considered his life to be a wrestling match with an invisible, internal opponent, in the struggle to attain virtue. He wanted to be “good, simple, individual, bare, brighter than the body that covers you… [disposed to] love and affection… free of need, missing nothing, desiring nothing.” His meditations were devoted to the power struggle between reason and the pernicious forces of impulse, desire, and passion. 

He acknowledges that the self is divided into a higher rational being and a weaker, pitiful beast, both constantly engaged in a violent battle. He writes, “If you remove your judgement of anything that seems painful, you yourself stand quite immune to pain. ‘What self?’ Reason. ‘But I am not just reason.’ Granted. So let your reason cause itself no pain, and if some other part of you is in trouble, it can form its own judgement for itself.”

Marcus Aurelius viewed repetition as a form of spiritual exercise aimed to reinforce his beliefs. Common imperatives embedded in the text include ‘Remember,’ ‘Keep in mind,’ and ‘Do not forget.’ His writings are a laundry list of pointers to the self and illustrate the endless importance of “Do[ing] every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”

Moreover, Meditations possesses a precipitously elegant poetic flair. Marcus reinforces his acceptance of the destructive cycle of birth and death as he writes: “We should also attend to things like these, observing that even the incidental effects of the processes of Nature have their own charm and attraction. Take the baking of bread. The loaf splits open here and there, and those very cracks, in one way a failure of the baker’s profession, somehow catch the eye and give particular stimulus to our appetite. Figs likewise burst open at full maturity: and in olives ripened on the tree the very proximity of decay lends a special beauty to the fruit.” 

Despite society’s penchant for vesting beauty in the rosy cheeked and bright eyed young, Marcus argues that each stage of life bears unique beauty which is reflected in the natural world. The flaws humankind finds in gray hairs and wrinkles are marks of wisdom and grace. He further notes: “So any man with a feeling and deeper insight for the workings of the Whole will find some pleasure in almost every aspect of their disposition…he will see a kind of bloom and fresh beauty in an old woman or an old man.”

Many ancient philosophers even viewed old age as a liberating force. For example, in Plato’s The Republic, Cephalus observes how his frail body and mature mind have enabled him to discard the chains of desire and expectation so ardent in youth. 

Even beyond the glories of old age, Marcus Aurelius refuses to regard death as a disaster. Instead, he wields the impermanence of life as a reminder to adhere to virtue. “What we do now echoes in eternity,” he writes, while later acknowledging the tidal waves of time which drown generation after generation into oblivion through a war of attrition with memory and artifacts.

Fascinatingly, Marcus Aurelius was not wedded solely to hypothetical ideals. Instead, he weaved his philosophy into his actions as a statesman. Philosophy provided a vital escape from the weight of the crown. His service as emperor entailed the perpetual struggle to benefit and tolerate his fellow human beings who were fraught with vice. “A king’s lot: to do good and be damned,” Marcus writes. 

Still, he later adds, “Epithets for yourself: upright, modest, straightfoward, sane, cooperative, disinterested… Maintain your claim to these epithets – without caring if others apply them to you or not.” Marcus Aurelius viewed the path to virtue as a solitary one, void of public opinion and emotional attachment to positive outcomes. Crucially, Marcus did not perceive the vicissitudes of life as an obstacle to virtue. By contrast, he wrote that misfortune was a great test of character and catalyst for self-improvement.

Marcus also believed that the act of ruling involved recognition of the weakness of humanity and the development of a system of legislative and executive acts which generate positive incentives for moral behavior to prevent pandemonium. A pragmatic politician, Marcus observes that, “It is the responsibility of leadership to work intelligently with what is given, and not waste time fantasizing about a world of flawless people and perfect choices.” 

The political lens of Meditations is evident in parcels of cautionary advice. “Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple,” Marcus writes to caution against tyrannical abuses of power. Like the allure of the ruling ring in Lord of the Rings, the seat as emperor captivated all who claimed it. Marcus Aurelius’s own son, Commodus, a vicious, corrupt, and mercurial ruler, precipitated a period of civil strife, ending the golden age of the empire. 

Overall, Marcus Aurelius maintained equanimity in the face of all disaster and devastation. “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength,” he writes. Inspiring centuries of stone-faced Stoics, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes that all pain is external, thus granting one “the power to revoke [it] at any moment.” 

However, Marcus Aurelius did live a life of luxury and never suffered due to hunger or a significant physical ailment. Thus, his philosophy may be a product of his prosperous, peaceful life; while a hungry man may not be able to revoke pain, Marcus Aurelius, in the labyrinthine halls of his palatial home, was able to. 

In the 160s, Marcus Aurelius went to war with the Parthian empire for control over eastern lands. Verus, who oversaw the war effort, died in 169 C.E., leaving Marcus Aurelius alone to eliminate the German threat. In 177 C.E., after eradicating the threat of Avidius Cassius, Marcus Aurelius appointed his son Commodus co-emperor. Together, they valiantly fought Rome’s northern enemies until Marcus Aurelius died of an infectious disease on the 17th of March 180 C.E. 

Summing up the importance of Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical legacy, William Wang ’22 said, “Philosophy can arouse the discernment of morality, encourage reflections on our deepest convictions, and rekindle a childlike wonder for the sheer mystery and opportunity lying at the heart of the unknown.” 

Now, Marcus Aurelius leaves us with his Meditations and the critical reminder that we should “dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see [ourselves]… running with them.” He exemplifies the value of setting one foot in the world of ideas and another in the world of action. Thus, we may derive happiness both from our thoughts and work, achieving a life of grace and virtue. 

Summing up the importance of Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical legacy, William Wang ’22 said, “Philosophy can arouse the discernment of morality, encourage reflections on our deepest convictions, and rekindle a childlike wonder for the sheer mystery and opportunity lying at the heart of the unknown.”