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Marcus Aurelius' Philosophy: Self-Control as a Way to Succeed in Life

Marcus Aurelius' philosophy was born under the extreme pressure of the Roman Empire. Check out the emperor's life rules to empower your personal Stoicism daily.

Marcus  Aurelius philosophy

During his lifetime, Marcus Aurelius faced many ruthless enemies and disasters, yet he never faltered despite immense stress. The secrets behind his Stoic character fill every line of "Meditations": he firmly believed in the power of self-control, kindness, sociability, and respect toward yourself and others, encouraging future readers to work on their personal development and strengthen their character restlessly.

Marcus Aurelius: Forming of a Stoic mindset

Born during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (A.D. 121-180) didn't have an alternative but to grow in courage to face all the challenges that life offered him. In a way, philosophy became his lifeline.

After losing his parents and grandfather, young Marcus went under the wing of his uncle-in-law Antoninus Pius (A.D. 86–161). Antoninus proceeded to arrange the marriage between Marcus and his eccentric daughter Faustina. Their relationships became a vital source of inspiration for one of the five good emperors, as descendants would crown Marcus Aurelius. Sadly, out of all their children, only one son, Commodus (A.D. 161–192), survived, inheriting the throne from his prominent father.

Marcus Aurelius outpoured all his struggles, whether about the Antonine plague killing off his subjects or numerous military campaigns, into "Meditations." His mindset as an author evolved under the tutelage of Fronto (A.D.100–160), who helped the future Roman emperor to master his Latin and Greek skills. It allowed the heir to study philosophy on a more profound level.

Fronto and Marcus Aurelius stayed close for years. Fronto would not show familiarity in their correspondence, referring to his former student as Caesar. Marcus Aurelius' life and educational background weaved him into a Stoic philosopher who simultaneously carried the responsibility of a Roman Emperor. He achieved the primary goal of Stoicism: building up self-control always to contain overbearing emotions. Let's see how Marcus Aurelius excelled in his dual role as a reigning monarch and an outstanding Stoic philosopher, referring to his "Meditations."

Marcus Aurelius' rules for life: Between Stoicism and Christianity

The way Marcus Aurelius presented his ideas in "Meditations" demonstrates that he had put many principles of Stoic philosophy into practice. However, most Stoic underpinnings appear to have parallels with Christian rules for life. For example, the quote "Love mankind, walk in God's ways" from "Meditations" resonates with the New Commandments': "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind... and... love your neighbor as yourself." There are dozens of such examples throughout Marcus Aurelius' work, which makes one wonder how close he was to Christians, who felt safe during his rule.

Here is another example:

"Nothing can happen to any man that nature has not fitted to endure." ("Meditations")

marcus aurelius quote on endurance

Bible: "God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it."

Even though the Bible praises a person's ability of self-control, calling a person who mastered it "one who is better than a city conqueror," the core message of Christianity is still different. It is mostly about faith and willingness to let God transform you. Stoicism, in turn, advocates trusting your potential and nurturing an ability to navigate emotional storms inside one's mind. In this regard, Marcus Aurelius, indeed, was a Stoic philosopher.

Overall, the emperor was deeply fond of philosophy. He admired its ability to make people's judgment more straightforward when escaping reality or facing the situation head-on was a better option. Apparently, the core of the good emperor philosophy is "accepting what cannot be changed and focusing on what is within our control." It sounds like an ultimate point, but Marcus Aurelius speaks to his readers mainly through musings on the extremes of life and death, yet in a humble and sensitive tone.

Philosopher and emperor: Marcus Aurelius and Plato's ideal ruler

In his famous work "The Republic," Socrates's student Plato from Athens elaborated on the idea of a philosopher king, whom he considered an ideal version of a ruler. From Plato's perspective, the philosopher-king could efficiently balance philosophy and politics. The life and rule of Marcus Aurelius, and especially his literary legacy, proved that he was a Roman Emperor who approached this dual Hellenistic ideal of the ancient philosophy author the closest. Besides those skills, Marcus Aurelius also demonstrated that one must never stop working on self-improvement to grow into a genuinely Stoic personality able to knock off all giants on their way. This approach fits the modern Western way of life focused on personal growth.

The military campaigns included conflicts with the Parthian Empire and the Kingdom of Armenia and disasters like pandemics that killed off most Ancient Rome residents, providing the ruler multiple opportunities to practice some of the world's Stoic self-help principles. He would remind himself that no matter what happened, there was a sense behind it because of a cosmic principle of global interconnection:

"Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul."

marcus aurelius on the soulHence, for Marcus Aurelius, it was always a pivotal principle to focus on controlling what he can control as a human, staying Stoic. The philosopher-emperor had first absorbed those and other Stoic exercises of self-discipline in one's daily life from Junius Rusticus, one of his most respected teachers. 

Through the blood and tears: A harsh price of Marcus Aurelius's Stoic character

The familial hardships were no less stimulative than the Empire's intricacies regarding the ruler’s learning what Zeno was talking about when formulating the precepts of Stoicism. His unique identity was meticulously deconstructed in Donald J. Robertson's "Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor."

It spiraled from the moment Lucius Verus, Marcus' adoptive brother, was appointed as a co-emperor. Shortly after, Rome faced all kinds of catastrophes, such as famine, floods, and Germanic tribes. After Verus died, Marcus regained sole command and joined the army in the Danube region. After subduing the revolt of Avidius Cassius in Asia, Marcus Aurelius felt like he was reaching the limit and needed an outlet, and that's the moment when his melancholy pushed him to write "Meditations."

This series of reflections highlights Marcus Aurelius' humanity and natural humility, which matched all the standards of an ancient Stoic tradition. It originated in Greece, yet soon after, it gained attention all over Christian Europe.

The tradition places a great value on the potential to deal with uncertainty and adversity using a person's self-control. In this regard, Stoicism resonates with Epicureanism; here, Marcus Aurelius' philosophy intersected with a Roman Stoic Seneca who emphasized the importance of reason when taming aspirations and emotional responses.

Marcus Aurelius believed that,

"Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it – turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself – so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal."

marcus aurelius on obstacles

Being an Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius never failed to praise others if they embodied Stoicism in his eyes:

"In sickness... or trouble, be like Epicurus."

It explains why his book is so relatable to the works of other Stoic philosophers, particularly Epictetus. They both included references to metaphysical matters, completing their writings during an active spread of the Christian faith. It affected their style and branded them as "religious" Stoics inclined to share what other Christians believed in.

In sickness... or trouble, be like Epicurus

The central message of Marcus Aurelius' philosophy

Generally, Marcus Aurelius' philosophy was straightforward and powerful, serving as a nod to the general order of rule in the Roman Empire. Such clarity was meant to help a human being improve their ability to shrug off negative external influences and guard their soul. When analyzing "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, a French historian Pierre Hadot developed Marcus' perception of the soul as an inner citadel nurturing a human's sense of freedom. In fact, Hadot helped readers to discern the depth of the Stoicism doctrines entangled with Christian reflections in Marcus Aurelius' work. The thinker equated the soul or human’s inner world with a stronghold against the outer world's trials.

The meditations of the good emperor might be encapsulated in this central message:

"Do not be distressed. Retire within yourself, erase all fancies, and ensure that no viciousness or turmoil finds home in your soul. The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered. Stop being a passion's puppet. Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbors unless with a view to some mutual benefit. Meditate upon your last hour."

marcus aurelius on his last hour

Meanwhile, in Book III of his work "On Ends," Cicero counter-argued Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics, admitting that the perfect rationality of a person was not something unanimously interpreted, just like the meaning behind "justice." Here, the emperor's approach, to some extent crossed with Cicero's: What one deems right and wrong is usually based on subjective interpretations of justice, but the outside Stoic sources of ethics dictate an ultimate meaning. For Marcus Aurelius, the basis of all ideas was the unity of living beings as rational, cosmopolitan citizens.

The key to Marcus Aurelius' ethics is hidden in his reminder that "the universe is social," so humans must try their best to avoid cutting ties with their neighbors and put more effort into maintaining a sound fellowship with them. To learn more about the philosophy and ethics of this "most relatable" Roman ruler, a user-friendly English edition of "Meditations" translated by Gregory Hays may come in handy.

Marcus aurelius on the universe being social

Life hacks from Marcus Aurelius: How Stoicism can help us

As we can see, the philosopher king applied Stoicism to his rule as Emperor mainly by mastering one's emotional well-being. In every situation of an overbearingly turbulent life, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius seemed never to fail to refer to writing and reading as preferred ways of escapism. His perseverance is engraved on every quote of "Meditations," universally deemed a golden legacy of ancient Stoic life hacks applicable to daily life that demands us to work on our personal growth incessantly:

1. Learn to control your emotions at all times.

"Live each day as though one's last, never flustered, never apathetic - here is the perfection of character."

marcus aurelius live your day as though your last one

2. Do not neglect one's soul, as it is our mental health regulator, and refer to the "tough self-love" when needed.

"Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres."

marcus aurelius quote on the soul

3. Staying social and considerate of others is a sure way to live a good life.

"Be generous and liberal... treat [human beings] in the spirit of fellowship."

marcus aurelius on fellowship

4. Never act under an imminent impulse.

"When an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice."

marcus aurelius on passions

Inspirational Marcus Aurelius' quotes for the time of distress

1. "Even when the mind is feeling its way cautiously and working round a problem from every angle, it is still moving directly onwards and making for its goal."

marcus aurelius quote on mind

2. "Do not give up in despair... return to the attack after each failure."

marcus aurelius on giving up in despair

3. "Curb impulse; quench desire; let sovereign Reason have the mastery."

marcus aurelius quote on sovereign reason

4. "Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest."

marcus aurelius quote on withstanding challenges

Stoic rules for life: To love others, love yourself first

In "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, the readers are repeatedly encouraged to care about the material part of human life in no less measure than the divine:

"As surgeons keep their lancets and scalpels always at hand for the sudden demands of their craft, so keep your principles constantly in readiness for the understanding of things both human and divine."

marcus aurelius on principles

This quote points to what can be crowned as the main idea of Stoic philosophy: always stay aware of tangible and intangible dimensions of earthly life, basically of God and fellow humans, and keep your attitude in check to treat them with the honor they deserve. Yet without honoring yourself first, this task gets enormously complex.

Even though Marcus Aurelius particularly calls to "refrain from imitation" of others, Stoic and Biblical rules for life do coincide. His Stoicism calls "reverence for oneself" a quality of the "rational soul." In turn, Christianity accentuates the importance of "loving one's neighbor as one loves oneself," implying that a person will fail to treat others properly without self-love. Hence, to alleviate stress effectively, a true Stoic must remember that their actions affect them first:

"The sinner sins against himself; the wrongdoer wrongs himself, becoming the worse by his own action."

marcus aurelius quote about sinners

Explore "Meditations" book summary with Headway

If you are looking for a piece of working advice on how to apply Stoic wisdom and bolster your personal development, Marcus Aurelius is just the right philosopher to start learning. To enjoy more soul-enriching quotes from this most relatable emperor and other Stoic minds on living a fulfilling and anxious-free life, check out the 15-minute summative version of "Meditations" as an initial step. We also recommend checking out the Headway app to study more esteemed works on philosophy, growing in confidence while your self-growth journey continues.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Greco-Roman philosophy is associated with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius?

The philosophy linked with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius is Stoicism. It promotes virtues such as courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom and advocates accepting fate while seeking happiness from within.

Was Marcus Aurelius a Stoic?

According to historian Julius Capitolinus, Marcus Aurelius was a bright representative of Stoicism, a philosophical trend. Marcus Aurelius inspired the ideas of earlier Stoics, including Epictetus. He put them into practice and was guided by them in his life.

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