I think we can all agree that life is stressful. Some days, it feels like the world is directly working against you, and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the day-to-day happenings in this crazy, fast-moving world. The worst part is that there are a lot of things that can impact our lives that we have little to no control over as individuals; our health, the economy, how other people act, the list is endless. What can we do to help deal with this mind-breaking stress? Well, a Roman Emperor was kind enough to leave behind some of his advice for dealing with life.
A few months ago, I heard about a book called Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome. Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180 AD, and is regarded as one of the “Five Good Emperors”. Being a Roman Emperor did not mean that Marcus’s life was easy, he spent many years away from his family and his city on military campaigns against Germanic tribes, he tried in vain to prepare his son Commodus to succeed him, and he died at the age of 58 while on military campaign (If the names Marcus Aurelius and Commodus sound familiar, it’s because they were major characters in the film Gladiator).
This book is strange, because it was never supposed to be published; Meditations, which was likely penned while Marcus was on campaign in Gaul and Germania. Organized into short, numbered thoughts, it’s the collections of private thoughts, ideas, and maxims that Marcus lived and ruled by, and is one of the central texts of the philosophy of Stoicism.
Not a Philosophy of Statues
When you hear the word “Stoic” or “Stoicism”, you probably imagine an old man who remains emotionless to the world around him, never smiling or frowning. People perceive stoicism as a philosophy of inaction and apathy, of just letting the world run its course while you hang on like you’re on a roller coaster that is making you nauseous. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is centered around the realization that you don’t control the circumstances that control your life, you only control how you think about them and how you react to them. You can’t control the flow of traffic on a freeway that is making you late for a meeting, but you’re the only one who can control how you react, whether you scream at the people in front of you, lay down your horn, and rip out your hair, or if you sit back, stay calm, let your boss know why you’ll be late, and enjoy the time you don’t have to spend at the office.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Stoicism has its origins in Ancient Greece around 301 BC, where Zeno of Citium, a merchant from Cyprus who found his way to Athens following a shipwreck, preached philosophy from the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch (does this mean that you could call Stoicism Porchism?). This practice of preaching to the public was different from how other philosophers of the day shared their knowledge, which was usually done in private.
Another major figure in Stoicism is Epictetus, born a slave in 50 A.D. in Phrygia, an eastern province in the Roman Empire. His teachings were written and compiled by his pupils, and focus on making philosophy not just a way to think, but a way to live. His two major works, Enchiridion and Discourses, were major influences on Marcus Aurelius, and shaped his personal philosophy and worldview. Three of the major thinkers behind Stoicism were a slave, a merchant, and the Emperor of Rome.
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
I’ll admit, if you really want to get into fully understanding Stoicism you’ll find that it is quite complex, as understanding the Stoic worldview completely means grasping the metaphysics of this school of thought. However, what’s nice about Stoicism and part of what makes it so applicable in life is that you don’t have to completely adhere to the teachings of it in order for it to have positive influences on your mindset and worldview.
Stoicism is not a religion, it does not demand your submission to a god, nor does it bind you to constricting tenants that govern how you live. Stoicism does not stand in opposition to any religions or belief systems, in fact in more than accommodates them. For example, Buddhism and Stoicism are often compared as similar, especially in the the Buddhist idea of Zen and the Stoic practice of mindfulness. Many early Christian thinkers were influenced by the teachings of the Stoics, and those ideas helped lay the groundwork for a lot of early Christian Theology.
Philosophy of Both Emperors and Slaves
Stoicism involves making peace with the world and the things you don’t control, not allowing day-to-day circumstances affect what Marcus calls your “Ruling Faculty”, the part of your mind that follows reason and logic and ignores transitory things like sudden rushes of emotion. A large part of Stoicism, and one of the major exercises of it, is realizing that your problems are only as large as you make them to be, that you control how you respond to difficulty, and that you can at any time revoke the pain that things cause us. As Marcus Aurelius says in Meditations,
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Stoicism is not just a philosophy to be associated with marble statues of men who have been dead for a millennia, Stoicism is alive and well in the world today. Many people, including CEOs and other highly successful individuals, adhere to Stoic ideas, Secretary of Defense James Mattis is known to have carried a copy of Meditations while he was serving abroad, and much of his worldview seems to have been shaped by the ideas in the book.
Stoicism isn’t just for the successful to study, remember that although Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome, he drew inspiration from Epictetus, who was born a slave. The ideas and practices of Stoicism can help people in all walks of life. The Christian Serenity Prayer, a Christianization of the major ideas of Stoicism, is used by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
Change Comes From Within
I’m not going to sit here and preach that reading a 2,000 year-old book will immediately change your life for the better. And I’m not going to say that following Stoic ideas will fix deeper issues that may be plaguing you, because that isn’t what Stoicism is about, it isn’t supposed to magically cure deep-seated issues like depression or anxiety. Stoicism, and specifically Meditations, gives you some life lessons that can help you look at the world and yourself differently. Change comes from within. Stoicism tries to help you make that change.
I try my best to bring my copy of Meditations with me whenever I travel, so I always have a source of wisdom and knowledge with me if I need it. Although I try my best to live by and embody the ideals that Marcus Aurelius writes about, I often fall short and get swayed by exterior forces that surround me. Failure to live up to these ideals does not excommunicate me from Stoicism, in fact, failure is welcomed and understood. Reading and thinking about Stoic ideas, maxims, and quotes has helped change how I look not only at the world, but myself.
I don’t think that Meditations isn’t a book that is supposed to sit on a shelf and look pretty, it is a book that should have some wear and tear on it, that you should underline and highlight and fold the pages of. Luckily Amazon sells a great translation of Meditations for around $1, and there are digital copies online for free. In the future, I plan on posting some quotes from Meditations and other similar works and writing out my thoughts about them.
I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from Meditations, ones that I that I think embody the core of Stoicism, ones that I try my best to memorize and live by.
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.”
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
And my personal favorite,
“What we do now echoes in eternity.”
Header Photo Credit to History.com