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This is the Critical Difference

Daily Stoic Emails

Marcus Aurelius and Nero had remarkably similar early lives. Both were not obvious selections for the throne. Both were told early that supreme power was in their future. Both lost their fathers young. Both were given Stoic teachers—Rusticus to Marcus; Seneca to Nero—and both tutored in philosophy.

So why did Marcus turn out to be Marcus and Nero to be Nero? Was one brilliant and just, the other vicious and unhinged?

In our discussion with the author and historian Barry Strauss on the Daily Stoic podcast, one possible explanation emerged: It was their mothers who made the difference. Marcus’s mother was, he writes in book one of Meditations, generous, unable to even conceive of doing wrong, and lived simply—”not in the least like the rich.” Nero’s mother was calculating and ambitious, uncaring and cruel. Marcus had another critical influence—his beloved stepfather, Antoninus, who treated him like a son and modeled, daily, what good leadership looked like. In the end, no amount of talent or training or tutoring was enough to outweigh that critical deficit for Nero.

It’s just a reminder: Parenting matters! If you have kids, the most important role philosophy can play in all of your lives is in guiding the example you set for them. In the principles you embody. In the standards you hold yourself to. This is the area in which you can have true multi-generational impact. Which is a bittersweet truth about Marcus. He benefited from the positive influence of parents and role models who were guided by philosophy when he was young. But as an adult, his own failings as a father with his son Commodus would undo almost all the good he did himself as emperor.

That is the critical difference between being a good person, a good leader and being a good parent: it’s having positive influences early, and being a positive influence early…and always.

P.S. If you are a parent or will be one some day and you enjoy the email we do here, you will love The Daily Dad—a daily email on parenthood, love, and raising great kids. It is one piece of timeless wisdom delivered straight to your inbox every day—subscribe today!