Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his personal thoughts and observations in a journal he titled “To Himself.” It wasn’t meant for publication. It was simply where he reflected on the lessons he learned from the philosophy he lived by. While Marcus was known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors of Rome,” his position and power alone are not why we still echo his name today. We remember Marcus because of the honesty in the words he wrote to himself. Today, that journal is now widely published as Meditations.
According to a recent article by The Guardian, print sales of Meditations are up 28% for the first quarter of 2020. In the last four weeks, ebook sales rose 356%. With the COVID-19 crisis and the ever-growing unemployment rate, it’s no surprise that Marcus’ words have once again been a source of relief and strength. As many of us sit at home and read through the Emperor’s journal, the question of how Marcus spent his days is bound to pop up.
Thanks to his prolific journaling, we have a good understanding of what a typical day might have looked like for the Emperor. This article will lay that out so you can insert Marcus’ habits into your everyday life. This is how the modern Stoic can live like Marcus Aurelius:
Wake Up Early and Get To Work
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’” — Marcus Aurelius
At the beginning of Book 5 in Meditations, Marcus reminds himself of the difficulty we all face in getting out of bed. He has this incredibly relatable conversation with himself, as he writes “Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being?” Even someone who was as wise and disciplined as Marcus still needed to remind himself to leave the comfort of his bed. Beyond the encouragement to wake up and start the day, Marcus made a profound argument. As he points out, everything in nature is working—doing what it was born to do to keep the world turning. Marcus purposefully shames himself by asking the question “Is this what you were created for?” Ouch.
And no, it’s not. Marcus recognized that human beings are not exempt from doing their part, regardless of social status. We all work in the warehouse of nature. Every single lifeform is serving and working, working and serving. It’s our duty not only as human beings but especially as Stoics, to keep this in mind when we feel like sleeping in or not contributing. Every day, we must remember to do our part for the world. To fail in that endeavor is to go against nature itself, and to take the gift of being human for granted. The Stoics would, of course, disagree with the former and the latter.
Take Time To Journal
“The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character. Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others. To steer clear of oratory, poetry and belles lettres. Not to dress up just to stroll around the house, or things like that. To write straightforward.” — Marcus Aurelius
Despite his admitted struggles to get out of his warm, comfortable bed, Marcus Aurelius seems to have done his journaling first thing in the morning. From what we can gather, he would jot down notes about what he was likely to face in the day ahead. He talked about how frustrating people might be and how to forgive them, he talked about the temptations he would experience and how to resist them, he humbled himself by remembering how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and journaled on not letting the immense power he could wield corrupt him. Marcus utilized journaling as a way to audit his behavior. As he puts it in the quote above, he needed to find a way to train and discipline his character. As do we.
It’s unfortunate that the idea of journaling tends to turn a lot of people off. Many view the practice as a chore or insist that they lack the time. As with any habit, we have to make it a priority in order to succeed. No one is asking you to write a Ron Chernow-Esque biographical epic (though his books are amazing). It could be as simple as listing three things you’re grateful for every morning or reflecting on your day in just a few sentences. Whatever it is, start small. All that matters is that you’re reviewing your behavior and auditing whether your actions match your guiding principles. This isn’t to say that you should judge yourself, but you should certainly hold yourself accountable. Marcus did it. Seneca did it. Petrarch, Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Ronald Reagan, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Ludwig van Beethoven—they all kept a journal as well. We’d be wise to follow suit.
Prepare for the Day Ahead
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” — Marcus Aurelius
The above quote would cause most readers to believe that Marcus viewed people with a pessimistic lens. That could not be further from the truth. When Marcus writes this description of people, he’s talking about Premeditatio Malorum, or negative visualization; the ability to anticipate the worst so that we can adequately prepare ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead. One can only imagine how difficult it was for Marcus, a man of temperance and discipline, to put up with the slimy politicians and pompous noblemen who he encountered on a daily basis. By mentally preparing himself for the people he might encounter, Marcus was ready to handle anyone, no matter how difficult or abrasive they may be.
The Stoic doesn’t see negative visualization as pessimistic, but simply a feature of their undying optimism. Every day there are people and things that will annoy and distract us, but it is within our power to not let that happen. It all depends on our perception. We can’t take responsibility for other peoples’ behavior, but we can take responsibility for our own. So if you want to have a great day, think about all the ways it might go sideways. Be prepared for that. Think about how you’d handle it, all the things you would need to do in response. Practice being calm in the face of chaos. Remember that people will be depending on you and that’s why you need to respond accordingly. Consider what steps you can take now in anticipation.
Tackle The Most Important Task First
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.” — Marcus Aurelius
It’s likely that Marcus would tackle his most difficult tasks first. He didn’t believe in procrastination or putting things off. From his stepfather Antoninus, Marcus learned how to work long hours and “stay in the saddle”. He writes in Meditations that he even admired the way Antoninus scheduled his bathroom breaks, as they allowed him to work for long, uninterrupted periods. Marcus never shirked hard work or avoided his most unpleasant duties. He had a job to do and he didn’t complain about it. “Never be overheard complaining,” he wrote, “not even to yourself”.
Putting off our responsibilities is easy. Complaining is easy. Both are as natural to us as breathing. But what good has either ever done for anyone in the long run? Sure, shaking your fist at the sky and venting your frustrations can feel liberating in the moment, but has it ever changed your circumstances for the better, solved your problems or made you happier? Has procrastinating ever made your life less stressful and more efficient? We’re willing to bet the answer is no. This is why we must follow Marcus’ lead and tackle our most important tasks first. If we can win that battle first, the rest of the day will be a breeze.
“Anyone with a feeling for nature—a deeper sensitivity—will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly—things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius had a lot to worry about. His adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, by contrast, had enjoyed a famously peaceful reign. Marcus was not so lucky. It seems that Fate tested him with one catastrophe after another. Wars, floods, political turmoil, and a serious pandemic all rested on his shoulders. So how did Marcus relax? What did he do to decompress and achieve stillness in his daily life?
We know from the many references throughout Meditations that Marcus was active. He enjoyed boxing, wrestling, hunting and horseback riding. These were all common hobbies for men who resided in the upper echelon of Roman society. As a Roman, Marcus would have also found peace and relaxation in one of the many bath houses across the empire. In Budapest, you can still sit in the same hot and cold thermal pools that Marcus would have used to wash away the dust of everyday life.
It’s also apparent in Marcus’ journal that reading was a huge part of his life. It’s unknown to us when exactly he read and how often, but Marcus knew that he had to read in order to lead. He was always studying to be better. We have some indication as to how Marcus read at the beginning of Meditations, when he thanks Junius Rusticus for teaching him to read attentively and not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.”
Whether it’s making time to be active or going for a long walk through the woods every morning, we have to make time for stillness. We may not be leaders of expansive empires, but we all have our own stress and responsibilities that we have to manage. The best way to do that is to stop. To slow down. And take a moment to bathe in the beauty that surrounds us.
Remember, You Will Die
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
Aside from his morning journal entries, the most philosophical part of Marcus’ day was at night. As he tucked his children into bed and said goodnight to them, he would think to himself don’t rush this, this might be the last time you do this. It’s not a guarantee that either of you will make it through the night. From a historical perspective, it makes sense that Marcus approached his children with this mindset. His wife Faustina bore thirteen children during their marriage. By the time Marcus passed away in 180 AD, only five of his children remained. Only five.
Meditating on your mortality is a must. It is a tool to create priority and meaning. It’s a tool that generations have used to create real perspective and urgency. In contemplating death, we define our purpose. This is why we have to remind ourselves of human frailty every day. Simply put, every breath we take subtracts from the number of total breaths we have left. Always keep that in mind.
If we wish to plan our days like Marcus, then our schedule should maximize our time and direct our attention to the things that matter most. Marcus lived a successful life because he practiced good habits—habits for success and happiness. That’s why we’ve created a course to help you cultivate good habits as well.
In the end, the duty of a Stoic in its most basic form is this: to put each breath to good use, to live virtuously, and to accept fate as a friend rather than a foe. If we can do that, then we’ll lead the life that this philosophy encourages us to embrace. A Stoic life. Just as Marcus Aurelius did.
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