Marcus Aurelius never claimed to be a Stoic.
Gregory Hays, one of Marcus Aurelius’s best translators, writes in his introduction to Meditations, “If he had to be identified with a particular school, [Stoicism] is surely the one he would have chosen. Yet I suspect that if asked what it was that he studied, his answer would not have been ‘Stoicism’ but simply ‘philosophy.’”
He then notes that in the ancient world, “philosophy” was not perceived the way it is today. It played a much different role. “It was not merely a subject to write or argue about,” Hays writes, “but one that was expected to provide a ‘design for living’ — a set of rules to live one’s life by.”
That’s what this philosophy gives us: a design for living. Which is great because, as Seneca wrote, “Life without a design is erratic.” What were some of Marcus’s rules?
These are some of my favorites.
Put people first. My favorite story about Marcus Aurelius comes in the depths of the Antonine Plague, a horrible pandemic in Ancient Rome that killed millions of people. Rome’s economy has been devastated, people are dying in the streets, and everyone feels like it can’t possibly get better. What does Marcus do? He walks through the imperial palace and begins marking things for sale. Then for two months, on the lawn of the great emperor’s palace, he sells jewels, furniture, and finery owned by the emperor. He’s sending a message saying, ‘I’m not going to put myself first. I don’t need these fancy things — not when people are struggling.’ To me, this is like the CEO who takes a pay cut in a bad economy. This is the athlete who renegotiates their contract so the team can bring on new players. This is the leader who sacrifices and struggles and puts their people ahead of their own comfort and needs. That’s what greatness is.
Never be overheard complaining…Not even to yourself. In Meditations, Marcus speaks to this idea over and over and over again: Look inward, not outward. Don’t complain. Don’t meddle in the affairs of others. When you see someone acting objectionably, remember when you have acted that way. The Stoic does not have time to complain about othersbecause they have too much to improve on at home. When we make the distinction between what’s in our…