"The most subtle thing that's changed for me over time is...increasingly realizing how steeped [Marcus Aurelius] is in the preceding philosophical tradition."
— Donald Robertson
I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Donald Robertson Aurelius to discuss the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. If you want to do a deep dive into the life of Marcus, you can read Donald's book How to Think About Marcus Aurelius.
But for now, I'd like to present my in-depth interview with Donald and a breakdown of the key details from our discussion.
The full-length interview 👇
📝 The Cheatsheet
"Reading How to Think Like a Roman Emperor completely unlocked Meditations for me."
— Jon Brooks
Marcus Aurelius: A Stoic Legend in a Historical Context
Understanding Marcus isn't merely about studying his written work, Meditations. As Donald rightly points out, it's about recognizing the deeply embedded philosophical traditions that shaped this Roman Emperor's thinking. These weren't mere intellectual dalliances for Marcus; they were doctrines that deeply influenced his governance style and personal life.
Marcus Aurelius was profoundly influenced by the Stoic philosophers before him, which deeply resonated in his seminal work, Meditations. His leadership was characterized by an unusual respect for other nations, a direct product of his Stoic principles. Stoicism, for Marcus, was not just about personal introspection but an active guide to leadership and governance.
You might wonder: Why should I, a citizen of the 21st century, care about a philosophy that originated centuries ago in Ancient Greece? The answer, as Donald beautifully elaborates, lies in the timeless wisdom and applicability of Stoic teachings to our lives today.
📌 Historial Timeline:
- April 26, 121 AD: Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome. His birth name was Marcus Annius Verus.
- 138 AD: Marcus was adopted by Emperor Antoninus Pius, after Emperor Hadrian's death. This made him the heir to the throne. The adoption was part of Hadrian's effort to ensure a smooth succession.
- 145 AD: Marcus Aurelius married Faustina the Younger, Antoninus Pius's daughter. They had many children, though many did not survive into adulthood.
- 161 AD: Marcus Aurelius became co-emperor with Lucius Verus. This marked the beginning of his reign. The joint rulership was relatively peaceful and harmonious, with the two working in tandem.
- 165 AD: The Parthian War ended with a Roman victory. Lucius Verus led the campaign against the Parthians, though historians often believe the real orchestrators behind the scenes were the experienced generals.
- 166/167 AD: The Roman Empire experienced the outbreak of the Antonine Plague, which lasted until around 180 AD. This was one of the most significant events during Marcus's reign. It's believed to have killed millions and significantly affected the Roman military and economy.
- 169 AD: Lucius Verus died, possibly from symptoms related to the Antonine Plague, leaving Marcus Aurelius as the sole emperor.
- 170–180 AD: Marcus faced a series of challenges during this decade. The Marcomannic Wars, against Germanic tribes, were a significant part of this period.
- 175 AD: A revolt erupted in the east led by Avidius Cassius. Cassius declared himself emperor after mistakenly believing that Marcus had died. The revolt was short-lived as Cassius was assassinated, and Marcus dealt with the situation diplomatically.
- March 17, 180 AD: Marcus Aurelius died, possibly from the Antonine Plague. He was succeeded by his son, Commodus. Marcus's death marked the end of the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability across the Roman Empire.
Dichotomy of Control
The good, the bad, and the indifferent.
The Stoics had a very particular way of looking at the world, which was rooted in their ethical beliefs about what truly mattered in life. Here's a brief overview:
- The Good: According to the Stoics, the only things that are genuinely good are virtues (qualities of character) and virtuous actions. This includes qualities like wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline. They believed that possessing these virtues would lead to eudaimonia, which can be translated as "flourishing" or "the good life."
- The Bad: Conversely, the only things that are genuinely bad are vices (negative qualities of character) and actions stemming from those vices. This would include qualities like foolishness, cowardice, injustice, and intemperance.
- The Indifferent: Everything else falls into the category of "indifferents." This includes most of the things people typically pursue or avoid in daily life, such as wealth, health, reputation, and even life and death. The Stoics called them "indifferents" because they believed that these things neither contribute to nor detract from a virtuous and meaningful life in themselves.
However, the Stoics did make a further distinction within the category of indifferents:
- Preferred Indifferents: These are things that, all else being equal, it's natural for people to prefer. For example, health is preferable to sickness, wealth to poverty, and life to death. But these things are not intrinsically good; they're just naturally preferred.
- Dispreferred Indifferents: Conversely, these are things that, all else being equal, it's natural for people to want to avoid. For example, sickness, poverty, and death. But again, they're not intrinsically bad; they're just naturally avoided.
The Stoics believed that we should pursue preferred indifferents and avoid dispreferred indifferents, but only insofar as it doesn't compromise our virtue. For example, it's natural to want to be wealthy, but not if gaining that wealth requires acts of injustice or dishonesty.
This worldview might sound a bit strange to modern ears, but there's a profound wisdom in it. By focusing on virtue – which is entirely within our control – as the only true good, the Stoics found a path to a resilient and meaningful life. They believed that external events, whether good or bad, shouldn't disturb our inner peace. Instead, it's our judgments, decisions, and actions (all things within our control) that truly define the quality of our lives.
In a nutshell, for the Stoics, the essence of a good life wasn't about what happened to you, but about how you responded to what happened. They believed that with the right perspective, even amidst adversity, one could lead a life of serenity, purpose, and joy.
Rules for Life
From Marcus Aurelius
Use these guiding principles to help shape your thoughts and actions. These were some of the key elements in Marcus' outlook.
📚 Read Deeply and Dive into Wisdom's Origins
- Delve into the roots of your beliefs and understand the traditions that have shaped them.
- Become a historian of ideas.
- Seek supplementary guides when delving into complex literature to enhance comprehension.
- Seek lessons from ancient teachings to tackle today's challenges.
- Reference the lessons of history to make well-informed decisions today.
💜 Value Fair Kindness (Justice)
- Approach every person and situation with empathy, realizing everyone operates based on their current wisdom.
- Work towards increasing your compassion and tolerance.
- Make compassion a foundational pillar in all engagements.
⭕️ Know What's Within Your Control
- Identify what you can control, and release the rest for peace of mind.
- Make the study and practice of the dichotomy of control a key part of your life practice.
⭐️ Learn and Lead with Your Core Values
- Figure out what you value and ground your leadership decisions in unwavering principles and values.
- Stop living in reaction to other people and start living life according to what you decide is important.
- Ensure your beliefs and philosophies guide every action you take.
- Always ensure leadership decisions align with ethical standards and values.
🧠 Stay Open to Continuous Learning and Self-Development
- Revisit and relearn topics for deeper understanding and insights.
- Engage in regular self-reflection to nurture personal evolution.
🌎 Prioritize Shared Human Values
- Choose unity and collaboration over divisions and boundaries.
- Celebrate the interconnected journey of all human beings.
- Cultivate a global mindset that values interconnectedness and unity.
🤗 Practice Inclusive Morality
- Offer fairness and respect universally, irrespective of background or origin.
- Appreciate the strength that comes from embracing varied backgrounds and perspectives.
⚡️ Live Your Philosophy
- Turn philosophical knowledge into daily actionable guidance.
- Set aside time for introspection, ensuring alignment with your values.
- Dedicate moments each day to Stoic practices, merging philosophy with daily life.
- Use personal beliefs as a compass for your life's journey.
⏳ See Patience as Protection
- Opt for patience and comprehension over hasty conclusions.
- Focus on lasting benefits rather than fleeting successes.
- Prioritize ethical decisions over temporary and expedient solutions.
🔍 Challenge Your Own Views
- Consistently scrutinize and refine your beliefs in the quest for virtue.
- In adversities, step back to see the broader view, lessening the burden of immediate issues.
- Anticipate challenges and equip yourself mentally, nurturing a forward-thinking resilience.