Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Ancient Rome between 161 and 180 AD. Known commonly as the last amongst the “Five Good Emperors”, Marcus Aurelius carried the Empire on his shoulders, keeping it from its inevitable downfall and witnessing the worst: a declining national health, a promiscuous wife, a treacherous civil war, the rise of Christianity, a plague wiping out his people by the hundreds, and threat of battle and instability from all corners of the Empire.
Many in his position would have fallen to madness, under the stress that was his daily burden.
But Marcus Aurelius persevered. How? It is detailed in his personal journal, Meditations, which discusses the deepest thoughts and musings of a man who shed himself of anxiety and suffering, in his famous quote:
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.”
This and many other snippets of the brilliant stoicism that guided Aurelius’ nature can be found in Meditations.
For many, Aurelius’ notebook is the definite guide on becoming the best version of yourself you can be—actualizing the greatness that rests within you and maximizing your own strength, humility, personal ethics, and self-discipline.
Here are 22 of the wisest stoic truths from Marcus Aurelius buried in his 2000-year old diary, which still resonate as true today.
1) “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions, than your own soul. Retreat to consult your own soul and then return to face what awaits you.”
Stoicism regards the soul as the “inner citadel”. It teaches that the answer to your problems—even if your problem is the lack of direction—will always be found in your inner citadel, which is your own personal sanctum of peace.
Think of your mind like a deep lake. No matter how much strife and chaos you are experiencing on the surface, there will always be stillness and silence at the very bottom, and this is where you will find your answer.
In times of stress, reach within yourself and come out stronger.
2) “Is a world without pain possible? Then don’t ask the impossible.”
It was once famously stated by Aristotle that if you wished to have no enemies or critics, all you would have to do it, “Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
But who would want to live that kind of life? Hardship and pain are intertwined with living a life worth living. Stop searching for the impossible—a life without pain or sadness—and start pushing yourself to your goals.
3) “Ask: What is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.”
No one is at their best 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When you are faced with a problem, ask yourself these questions:
Have you actually pushed yourself? What part of it will be so difficult? What is the first step? How can I find motivation today?
Once you start asking yourself the right questions, you will realize that you are much stronger than you believed. Never forget the strength within you.
On the Rudeness of Others
4) “To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice. It degrades you. You can also commit injustice by doing nothing.”
By bringing negativity onto others, you associate your own image with negativity, harming yourself in the process.
Respect is a process that comes from the self, and by respecting yourself you will ultimately begin to respect others. And finally, when others are suffering and you do nothing to help them, your own image is stained.
5) “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. Just try and escape your own.”
We are all burdened with problems, hardships, and issues. But concerning yourself with solving the pain of everyone around you is a task that will take a century. You can’t fix the faults of those around you, but you can fix your own issues.
Work on yourself first; let others handle themselves.
6) “People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them.”
The fundamentals of existence remain true for everyone you see and interact with. We will all love, laugh, cry; we will all experience the deaths of those we hold most dear.
It is not something that we can escape, and by realizing that we all share this humanity within us, you also realize that there is no need to disrespect or harm those around us. Find the inner peace and strength to treat those around you with nothing but kindness.
7) “There have to be shameless people in the world. This person in front of you might just be one of them. Remembering that a whole class must necessarily exist will enable you to tolerate its members.”
When you encounter rude or mean people, stop being so shocked and surprised at their existence. Come to grips with the fact that there will always be mean people.
The more we expect the inevitability of meeting rude, mean, and unkind souls, the less they will affect us. Do not let them draw you into their own personal hell by understanding that they exist.
8) “As an antidote to battle unkindness we were given kindness.”
The most surprising thing you can do to an unkind person is to respond with kindness. They will have no idea how to respond themselves, because they have only known unkindness from those around them.
Battle their rudeness with politeness, and you will disarm them more thoroughly than any insult could ever do.
9) “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
The way we feel is determined by the way we allow ourselves to feel. The power we have over our mind is insurmountable, if we make the most of it. If you are called a bad name, all you must do it have the power to disassociate yourself from that name or image, and you will find yourself unaffected.
10) “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
No matter how rude or ungrateful the people around you may be, remember that you have complete control over your actions and thoughts.
To give yourself in to negativity is a failure of your own; the responsibility of your emotions rests in your hands and your hands alone.
The proper stoic never lets another determine the way he or she feels.
11) “The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.”
The only important value we can dedicate our lives to is to make sure we live it with virtue and kindness, rightfulness and truth. But while we may realize this, not everyone around us is mentally prepared for this realization.
Don’t look down on them for this. Find patience in yourself to respect them and let them be who they are, until they come to the point where they can stand beside you.
12) “After death there is no “us” to suffer harm.”
One of stoicism’s core beliefs is that death is something we should never concern ourselves with—the state of being alive means death is not our concern, and the state of being dead means we cannot be concerned. Death, therefore, cannot cause us any harm.
Aurelius himself has famously stated that within death is the end of fear.
13) “Nature first invited you in and then sends you away. Before long, darkness. Make your exit with grace. The same grace shown to you.”
Before and after we die, we are just a part of the cosmos, substance like everything else in the universe.
It is pointless, then, to react to our death negatively; simply we must embrace it, for it is our natural course as living things. We have our entire lives to prepare for the passage to nothingness.
Have grace when we finally take pass through our final door, and back to where we began.
14) “Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.”
Death is a natural thing, therefore it cannot be evil. We should be cheerful when it comes, and it is nothing more than an act of physical change.
We are never truly individual, as we are all parts of the universe working in harmony with the rest.
Just the fact that we found consciousness or happiness for a single moment is enough to say that we experienced it forever.
15) “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, say, and think.”
As they say, “Carpe diem”, or perhaps more recently, “You only live once.” There is no guarantee that you will spend another year, month, or day on this earth, so you should direct every action as if it were your last.
Live in a way that you will never have to regret the manner in which your last day was spent. Live every day as a representation of the best part of what you can be.
On Good Advice
16) “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
Many people undervalue how important our deepest thoughts can be. Our actions and words do not define who we are; it is our thoughts, the way we think and what we choose to think about.
Who we are is most determined by what we think—the rest just falls into place.
17) “If it’s endurable, then endure it. If it’s not endurable, then stop complaining. Your destruct will mean its end as well.”
Pain and suffering is inevitable, and complaining about it does nothing but waste your own time. If it won’t kill you, then just know that it will pass.
And if it will kill you, then find peace in the fact that your end will come with its own end.
18) “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.”
We cannot control the past or the future, but we can control the present. We can control our actions that happen right here, right now.
If you fully embrace that your life happens in the present, then you will stop reminiscing the past or dreaming about the future; instead, you’ll start building in the present.
And we want to be remembered the way we lived; if this were your last day on earth, would you be happy with the way they will remember you?
19) “At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
It is so easy to daydream our lives away. To think that we have an endless amount of time to achieve our hopes and dreams, therefore we don’t have to take ourselves seriously in the present. But if you never stop yourself and force yourself to move forward, life will never take you to where you want to be. The end, death, is coming at us, slowly but surely, and every day we waste is another day we will never get back.
On Failing In Your Career
20) “Keep before your eyes all those that experienced it before you, and felt shock and outrage and resentment at it. Where are they now? Nowhere.”
When we experience giant tragedies in our lives, such as losing a job or promotion, we feel our entire emotional well-being go into a state of anarchy.
We feel sad, outraged, depressed, resentful, as if it is the worst thing that has ever happened.
But remember: millions of people have experienced your own feelings, and they have met death, just as you someday will. Don’t let your life be ravaged by emotions that won’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things.
21) “People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that those who remember them will soon die too.”
We spend much of our lives searching for fame, in the hope that we will be immortal—in the minds of those that will remember and worship us.
But we never acknowledge the fact that no matter how famous or successful we become, even those that remember us will someday die as well, and we will end up being forgotten, just like everyone else.
So we must rule ourselves, not an empire, to live the greatest life we can live.
22) “Is it your reputation that is bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands.”
Aurelius wishes to remind us of our inevitable deaths. Our efforts, achievements, accomplishments—all these will end up being nothing someday.
But this is not a negative belief; rather, it is positive, because it frees us from caring about what others think about what we do, and instead doing what most fulfills us.
In the end, none of this will matter, so we should make the most of what we feel while we can.