5 Timeless Life Lessons From Marcus Aurelius

With the title “Roman Emperor,” you might think life would have been easy for Marcus Aurelius, but it wasn’t. Within the first year of his reign, one of Rome’s client states, Armenia, was seized by their common enemy, the Parthians. War ensued to reclaim Armenia as Aurelius faced other difficulties in the Empire, including chronic physical pains, but through Stoic training, Aurelius was able to master his perceptions and see each obstacle as an opportunity to improve.

Marcus Aurelius knew that he couldn’t control all that happened to him, but he could control how he responded. This Stoic practice, as well as the five others below, can help you take control of your happiness and live your best life. 

[1] Train Your Perceptions

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Stoic’s knew the importance of mastering their perceptions. They observed how easily we humans could be pushed and pulled by things out of our control. Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca all wrote vast amounts on this subject, proving it to be one of Stoicism’s essential principles. The Stoics used this practice to do what others didn’t, or wouldn’t do—take responsibility for their life.

Our perception influences all we experience, so why give that power to other people or situations? Training your perception to mastery not only puts the quality of your life into your hands, or in this case, your head, but it also helps you attain your goals:

“Characteristics of the rational soul: Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. It reaps its own harvest. It reaches its intended goal, no matter where the limit of its life is set. No matter which task you pick-it has fulfilled its mission, done its work completely.  So that it can say, ‘I have what I came for.’” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Stoics have a word for this, hypolêpsis, which means “taking up” — of perceptions, thoughts, and judgments by our minds.” Practice the following lessons from Aurelius to train and “take up” your perceptions.

[2] Turn The Other Cheek

“God did not intend my happiness to rest with someone else.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

As an Emperor, Marcus Aurelius was both criticized and praised, but he learned to not be effected by either. He observed human nature and often wrote about it in his reflections of life, now translated to the book Meditations:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and unfriendly.”

The world may have changed in the almost 2,000 years since Aurelius’s time, but human behavior hasn’t. Every day there are people and things that can annoy and distract us, but we have it in our power to not let that happen. It all depends on our response. Don’t take responsibility for other peoples’ behavior, take responsibility for your own.

“If someone despises me—that’s their problem. Mine—not to do or say anything despicable. If someone hates me—that’s their problem. Mine—to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way. That’s the way we should be like inside, and never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

People will never meet our high expectations of them, so before letting their behavior evoke our emotions, let us resort back to what is within our control. What virtue can we practice in that moment? This is the way to becoming a better Stoic and a better person.

[3] View Obstacles as Opportunities

“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Aurelius and the Stoics knew that obstacles weren’t bad at all, that they were actually opportunities to create success and become better in the process. Be, as Aurelius says, like nature, in the way that it uses everything, both good and bad, to reach its purpose. Every day we encounter situations that can be interpreted as either a hindrance, or a way to practice virtue. Continue reminding yourself that you are the narrator of your story, that how you interpret what you’re facing is up to you. Take time to make the choice that strengthens your character and adds to your self-control. These are the choices that will help you see the opportunity in every obstacle you face.

[4] Love Your Fate

“To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Stoics believed that a universal guiding force was pulling them, and all of us, toward what is destined. They compared this notion to a dog being pulled by a cart, we can either dig our hind legs in and resist the pull, struggling toward where destiny is leading us, or we can accept the pull, enjoying the journey of our destiny.

Friedrich Nietzsche credited human greatness to this notion, Amor Fati, which translated from Latin means love of one’s fate:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is Amor Fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it”

The Stoics chose to embrace and enjoy the path they had been given. They believed we could either love our destiny and go with it, or resist it and struggle.

There are things in all our lives we wish would be different at one point or another. We want to be more like other people, we want to fit in, but we were uniquely created for our own path. Find the good in your situation, and if you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. It’s there.

[5] Compare Your Life To Eternity

“Remember: Matter-how tiny you share of it. 

Time-how brief and fleeting your allotment of it.

Fate-how small a role you play in it.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Aurelius was constantly pondering the fleetingness of life. This is reflected in the countless times he mentions it in his personal journals, now known as Meditations. He reminded himself of all the people who have come and gone, the range of pursuits they all had, and that they are now just smoke and dust. The phrase for this reminder of death is Memento Mori, which translated from Latin means “Remember that you will die.” We can use this reminder as Aurelius did, to inspire us to live our best life, to let go of trivial worries, to live a life of virtue, to understand and empathize, and to love our fate.

Taking an eternal perspective can help us see the opportunity in our obstacles. In times of joy we can use Memento Mori to appreciate the greatness of this moment, here, right now. 

Comparing our lives to eternity is humbling. It shows us how small a part we play in this universe, and that’s okay. You can use the practice the Stoics used of taking a view from above, imagining yourself in space looking down on everything happening on Earth. Aurelius was able to take on that view, growing in empathy for all people, treating people kindly because he was able to see life objectively, realizing that we are all connected.

“My city and state are Rome-as Antoninus. But as a human being? The world. So for me, ‘good’ can only mean what’s good for both communities.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Here’s a video that gives us a perspective of Earth from space. It’s a speech by Carl Sagan with a variety of visuals related to the human species and our blue planet. 

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Aurelius and the Stoics have provided us with practices, ideas, and examples of how to live well. Let us waste no more time. Let’s get to it.

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Read More About Marcus Aurelius:

Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes

How To Control Your Anger (Lessons from Marcus Aurelius)

Building an Inner Fortress in a World at War: Marcus Aurelius and Stoic Anxiety Management Techniques

Have Better Days With Marcus Aurelius’ Daily Routine

 

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