What Marcus Aurelius Can Teach Us About the Practice of Stoicism

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor book coverStoicism is a practical philosophy that emphasizes rationality and virtue as the only true goods. Unlike other religious or spiritual practices, Stoicism does not require that you abandon reason or strain your grip on reality; rather, it provides an ethical orientation to life that is fully consistent with our nature as rational, social beings.

Stoicism therefore embraces the original Greek conception of philosophy as a way of life, a subject matter to be practiced rather than simply studied. Far removed from the logical hair splitting of academic philosophy, Stoicism is about living well, with an emphasis on ethics and the attainment of true contentment and excellence of character.

That means that mastering the art of Stoicism is no easy task; it requires putting theory into practice and patiently developing appropriate habits of mind that cannot come from simply reading a book, memorizing a few principles, and moving on. This is why, to truly master Stoicism, it helps to have a mentor, not in the sense of an all-knowing guru who will tell you exactly how to think and act, but in the sense of having someone with admirable character traits to emulate.

This is what makes How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson an ideal introduction to the practice of Stoicism. It combines the theory of Stoicism—corroborated by the latest therapeutic techniques of modern psychology—with the biographical details of a Stoic master worth emulating, Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus relied on mentors himself; in fact, in Book 1 of Meditations, Marcus provides a list of his mentors and their associated character traits that he would use to model his own behavior. Marcus was greatly influenced by Socrates, Seneca, Epictetus, and his own personal philosophy tutors. Marcus would often contemplate how these Stoic masters would themselves handle certain situations while also benefiting from personal instruction.

While having a mentor is important, most of us do not personally know a Stoic master who is available 24/7 to critique our attitudes and behavior. But there’s another option, one that Marcus used himself after his most valued personal mentor, Junius Rusticus, passed away. Marcus would imagine that his mentor, or a group of mentors he respected, were constantly watching over his actions, and that he would need to explain his actions to a tribunal of philosophers at the end of each day.

This allowed Marcus to continue to benefit from the personal instruction of Rusticus, even after Rusticus’s death, if only in his imagination. And it is the same technique the reader can use to benefit from the personal instruction of Marcus Aurelius. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor allows the reader to learn more about the life and thought of Marcus Aurelius for the purpose of establishing an imagined mentorship in the manner practiced by the great Stoics. This puts a face to the philosophy and brings the ideas to life, while providing a Stoic ideal for the reader to strive for.

Marcus, of course, was not only a Stoic philosopher; he was also a leader, the emperor of Rome. If anyone deserves the title of Plato’s “philosopher king,” it’s Marcus Aurelius, and if any Stoic is truly worth emulating, it’s also probably him.

So what can Marcus teach us? Since Marcus modeled his behavior according to a hypothetical Stoic ideal, we can all use Marcus’s own character traits as a model for our own character development. In that respect, what follows is a brief summary of the character traits and habits of mind of Marcus Aurelius that we would all benefit from emulating.

To begin with, the modern idea that we are all slaves to our passions, or that reason is slave to emotion, is patently false. If it were true, we would constantly indulge our appetites, sacrificing our health and never saving or planning for the future. We can all clearly make decisions that sacrifice immediate gratification for future benefits.

Reason, therefore, is of primary importance for the Stoic, what they called our “ruling faculty.” As Robertson wrote:

“Stoics argued that humans are first and foremost thinking creatures, capable of exercising reason. Although we share many instincts with other animals, our ability to think rationally is what makes us human…. It allows us to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and urges and to decide if they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.”

The use of reason is the only way to modify unhealthy habits, which are usually the result of blindly following our emotions. Our most natural reactions are often the most harmful. Marcus, for example, had to battle with severe outbursts of anger when he was younger. However, despite being predisposed psychologically to bouts of anger, Marcus trained himself to act more reasonably and calmly, even in the face of betrayal by his general Gaius Avidius Cassius, who declared himself emperor and started a civil war. Marcus reminded himself that people act according to what they think is right, and if they act dishonorably, they do so in error and therefore deserve our sympathy rather than our contempt.

That Marcus didn’t lose his cool doesn’t mean that he did nothing; he calmly and efficiently mobilized his forces and ultimately was victorious against Cassius. But he did so without undue emotional distress. Marcus reminded himself that without misfortune and difficulty, there is no opportunity to practice virtue. As Marcus wrote in Meditations, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Marcus replaced a negative emotion, anger, with sympathy, understanding, and action.

Marcus did not have an easy life: out of 13 children, he lived to see 8 of them die; he suffered from ulcers and other chronic physical ailments; he experienced constant warfare and political instability; and he dealt with the strain and stress of managing an empire. Yet he found the courage to confront these challenges effectively and without complaint, because he realized all events, whether considered good or bad, were simply opportunities to practice virtue and develop character. Marcus no doubt would have preferred health, wealth, and peace, and did what he could to attain them, but he did not waste time in grief or anxiety for things not within his direct control, nor did he waste time in pursuit of material objects or fleeting pleasures at the expense of his philosophical development.

Marcus therefore employed reason and wisdom to display courage, moderation, and emotional mastery. When a difficulty arose, he would simply say, calmly and dispassionately, “What next?” Marcus understood the difference between events and judgements, and how judgments are ultimately the cause of suffering. As Marcus said, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

At this point, there are two common but unfounded criticisms of Stoicism that I want to address. The first is that Stoics are unemotional. This is not true, for the simple reason that it’s not possible. You can’t eliminate emotions, you can only control them and replace initial negative emotions with positive ones, like Marcus did by managing his bouts of anger and replacing them with deep sympathy even for his enemies. Stoics, far from being unemotional, experience a profound sense of joy by living according to reason and wisdom and in helping others achieve the same.

The second misconception is that Stoicism makes one apathetic to public life and civic responsibility. Marcus, being the emperor of Rome and all, should make it obvious how wrong this is. But there’s a deeper explanation for why this is incorrect. Robertson explains this best:

“In addition to believing that humans are essentially thinking creatures capable of reason, the Stoics also believed that human nature is inherently social. They started from the premise that under normal conditions we typically have a bond of “natural affection” toward our children. (If we didn’t, as we know, our offspring would be less likely to survive and pass on our genes.) This bond of natural affection also tends to extend to other loved ones, such as spouses, parents, siblings, and close friends. The Stoics believed that as we mature in wisdom we increasingly identify with our own capacity for reason, but we also begin to identify with others insofar as they’re capable of reason. In other words, the wise man extends moral consideration to all rational creatures and views them, in a sense, as his brothers and sisters. That’s why the Stoics described their ideal as cosmopolitanism, or being ‘citizens of the universe’—a phrase attributed both to Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic.”

As Robertson further notes, the concepts of justice, kindness, fairness, and ethical cosmopolitanism are found throughout the Meditations. Marcus, despite being a Stoic, displays a rich emotional life full of contemplation, action, joy, contentment, justice, kindness, and civic responsibility.

From all of this we get a good idea of how Marcus would think and act in various situations, and this provides a great template by which we can develop our own character in accordance with the Stoic ideal. For those truly interested in mastering Stoicism, it’s helpful to ask yourself, could you justify your actions to Marcus at the end of each day? The next time you’re overwhelmed by anger or anxiety, work to replace your negative emotions with positive ones. The next time you face a crisis or difficult situation, ask yourself which virtue this allows you to practice. Over time, and with dedication, you might come to find, as Marcus certainly did, that life and all its chaos is nothing more than the opportunity to practice virtue, guided by the ideals of reason, wisdom, justice, and kindness.


Further Reading

A Short Guide to the Practice of Stoicism

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual by Ward Farnsworth

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus