Subject: Stoicism – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Event: Marcus Aurelius becomes Emperor AD 161
In The Republic, Plato envisioned a utopia governed by the ideal leader, a “philosopher-king” whose rule was based not on power but on a love of wisdom.
On this day in 161 A.D., Plato’s vision became a reality as 39-year-old Marcus Aurelius became emperor of the Roman Empire. More than just a leader who ruled an empire that made up one-fifth of the world population, Marcus left the world a philosophical work that has survived long after his 20-year reign.
Marcus never intended to publish his work, Meditations, yet it has been read by millions and is seen as the first self-help book ever published. For Marcus, Meditations was simply his own personal journal, a way for him to declutter his mind and organize his thoughts. Even though he was Roman emperor, Marcus did not live a life of luxury; instead, much of his time was spent in the field, facing many challenges: he quelled revolts from within and fought off threats from without.
The philosophy that Marcus practiced was Stoicism. Its goal was to teach people to face life’s challenges with bravery and with calm. Rather than looking on the sunny side of life, Stoicism is about contemplating worst-case scenarios in order to prepare ourselves mentally to deal with what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Living by Murphy’s Law reassures us that we can cope with anything that fate throws our way. Rather than reacting emotionally to what is out of our control, we can instead prepare ourselves to focus on what we can control: our reactions, our attitudes, and our thoughts. As the wisdom Marcus recorded in his journal reveals, he believed above all in mind over matter:
-You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
-Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
-Our life is what our thoughts make it. (1)
We know today that Marcus’ impulse to write as a form of mental therapy is a method that’s been proven to be effective not just for kings but for everyone. Specifically, research by social psychologist James W. Pennebaker has revealed that journaling has a whole host of benefits. In his 1988 study, he randomly assigned students to write either about traumatic experiences or about general topics for four days in a row. He then surveyed the students six weeks after their writing sessions and found that those who had written about their traumatic experiences had more positive moods and fewer illnesses than those who wrote about general topics (2).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is Stoicism, and what evidence is there that journaling like Marcus Aurelius did in his Meditations is beneficial?
Challenge – A Dozen Books on Wisdom: Pick a number between zero and thirteen. Using your number, look up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and read from the book that matches your number. Find a sentence or paragraph you particularly like. Quote it exactly; then, explain why you like it.
ALSO ON THIS DAY:
-March 7, 322 B.C.: The Greek philosopher Aristotle died at the age of 62 on this day while living in exile. He proclaimed the following: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
1-Holiday, Ryan. Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius. Portfolio, 2020.