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 others because they have too much to improve on at home. When we make the distinction between what’s in our control and outside our control, we see very quickly that it is only our own decisions and actions and words and thoughts that are worthy of our attention. Everything else is the business of everyone else.
Do only what’s essential. This was Marcus’ simple recipe for productivity and for happiness. “If you seek tranquility,” he said, “do less.” And then he clarifies. Not nothing. Less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.” Follow this advice today and everyday. Put it somewhere you will see it frequently: do only what’s essential.
Waste no time worrying about other people’s opinions. Marcus talked about a strange contradiction: we are generally selfish people, yet, more than ourselves, we value other people’s opinions about us. “It never ceases to amaze me,” he wrote, “we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” The fundamental Stoic principle is that we focus only on the things that are within our control. Other people’s opinions are not within our control. Don’t spend any time worrying about what other people think.
Don’t suffer imagined troubles. “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole,” Marcus reminded himself. “Stick with the situation at hand.” Focus on the moment. Waste no time thinking about the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.
Focus on effort, not outcomes. It’s a strange paradox. The people who are most successful in life, who accomplish the most, who dominate their professions—they don’t care that much about winning. They don’t care about outcomes. As Marcus said, it’s insane to tie your wellbeing to things outside of your control. Success, mastery, sanity, Marcus writes, comes from tying your wellbeing, “to your own actions.” If you did your best, if you gave it your all, if you acted with your best judgment—that is a win…regardless of whether it’s a good or bad outcome.
Ask this question. Marcus liked to filter his choices through the question, “You’re afraid of death because you won’t be able to do this anymore?” That’s the thing about memento mori . It’s so clarifying. If you had unlimited time, maybe you wouldn’t mind spending two hours a day in traffic. Maybe you wouldn’t mind endlessly doom scrolling the cesspool of Twitter or tackling the blackhole that is your inbox. But if death was suddenly real to you—if you were given a few months or years to live—what would you immediately spend less time doing? What would the “this” Marcus referred to that you would cut out? Well cut that thing out now, not later.
Choose sympathy over outrage. In Meditations, Marcus writes that asking for a world without shameless people and evil acts is to ask the impossible. He adds that people who do harm others end up only harming themselves—”To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice—it degrades you.” Marcus says these people actually deserve pity. “When people injure you,” he wrote, “feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion.”
Blow your own nose. Marcus noticed how often he found himself praying to get something. Wouldn’t it be better, he thought, to make yourself strong enough not to need whatever you were hoping the gods would grace you with? Epictetus calls this blowing your own nose. Don’t wait around hoping for someone to save you. Instead, listen to Marcus’ empowering call to, “get active in your own rescue—if you care for yourself at all—and do it while you can.”
Think progress, not perfection. Marcus reminded himself: “Don’t await the perfection of Plato’s Republic.” Because if you do, that’s all you’ll do…wait. That’s one of the ironies about perfectionism: it rarely begets perfection—only disappointment, frustration, and of course, procrastination. So instead, Marcus said, “be satisfied with even the smallest progress.” You’re never going to be perfect—there is no such thing. You’re human. So instead, aim for progress, even the smallest amount.
Let go of anxiety. “Today I escaped from anxiety,” Marcus says. “Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” He writes this during a plague, no less. We tell ourselves we are stressed and anxious and worried because of the pressure our boss puts on us or because of some looming deadline or because of all of the places we have to be and people we have to see. And then when all that gets paired down, you realize, ‘Oh, no, it was me. I’m the common variable.’ The anxiety is coming from the inside. And you can choose to discard it.
Do the more difficult thing. Whenever we come to a little crossroad—a decision about how to do things and what things to do—Marcus said to default to the option that challenges you the most. He writes in Meditations about holding the reins in his non-dominant hand as both an exercise to practice and a metaphor for doing the difficult thing. Jump into the colder pool. Walk instead of drive. Pick up the book instead of your phone. Take responsibility instead of hoping it goes unnoticed. In matters big and small, courage is choosing the more difficult option. Make it a habit. Iron sharpens iron, after all. You’ll be better for it—not only for the improvement that comes from the challenge itself, but for the willpower you are developing by choosing that option on purpose.
Wake up early. Speaking of doing the difficult thing—one of the most relatable moments in Meditations is the argument he has with himself in the opening of book 5. It’s clearly an argument he’s had with himself many times, on many mornings—as have many of us: He knows he has to get out of bed, but so desperately wants to remain under the warm covers. It’s relatable…but it’s also impressive. Marcus didn’t actually have to get out of bed. He didn’t really have to do anything. The emperor had all sorts of prerogatives, and here Marcus was insisting that he rise early and get to work. Why? Because Marcus knew that winning the morning was key to winning the day and winning at life. He wouldn’t have heard the expression “the early bird gets the worm,” but he was well aware that a day well-begun is half done. By pushing himself to do something uncomfortable and tough, by insisting on doing what he said he knew he was born to do and what he loved to do, Marcus was beginning a process that would lead to a successful day.
Be strict with yourself and tolerant of others. It’s called self-discipline. It’s called self-improvement. And remember: Stoicism is a personal philosophy that’s designed to direct your behavior. It’s tempting to try to hold others to the very same standards you hold yourself to, but this is not only unfair (they didn’t sign up for that), it’s often counterproductive. An observation from Marcus’ most thoughtful biographer, Ernest Renan, explains the right way to do it. “The consequence of austere philosophy might have produced stiffness and severity. But here it was that the rare goodness of the nature of Marcus Aurelius shone out in all its brilliancy. His severity was confined only to himself.” That’s exactly the key. Your standards are for you. Marcus said philosophy is about being strict with yourself and forgiving of other people. That’s not only the kind way to be, it’s the only effective way to be.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Yes, a Stoic is strong. Yes, a Stoic is brave. Yes, a Stoic carries the load, and willingly carries the load for others when necessary. But they also have to be able to ask for help. Because sometimes that’s the strongest and bravest thing to do. “Don’t be ashamed to need help,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?” If you need a minute, ask. If you need a helping hand, ask. If you need reassurance, ask. If you need a favor, ask. If you need therapy, go. If you need to start over, go for it. If you need to lean on someone or something, do it.
Treat success and failure the same. Some days, Marcus wrote, the crowd cheers and worships you. Other days, they hate you and hit you with brickbats. You get a lucky break sometimes—get more credit and attention than you deserve. Other times you’ll get held to an impossibly unfair standard. They’ll build you up, and then tear you down—and act like it was your fault you got way up there in the first place. They’ll criticize you in public and privately tell you it’s all for show. There will be good years and bad years. Times when the cards fall our way, times when the dice keep coming up snake eyes. That’s just the way it goes. The key, Marcus said, is to assent to all of it. Accept the good stuff without arrogance, he writes in Meditations. Let the bad stuff go with indifference. Neither success nor failure say anything about you. A rock thrown in the air gains nothing by going up, Marcus said, and nothing by falling down.
Be free of passion and full of love. Marcus wasn’t an unfeeling robot. He didn’t stuff things down. He was a husband and a father. He wrote beautifully, took principled stands, worked hard and sacrificed. None of these things are possible for an unfeeling person. Yet, it’s undeniable that he and the Stoics talked extensively about the management of one’s emotions. He talked about conquering their temper. He talked about overcoming grief. He talked about quenching lust and dispelling fear. It’s a paradox, but quite a wonderful one. At least, it is in Marcus’ expression. He explains at the opening of Meditations that he learned from his teacher Sextus, “not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.” Beautiful. It’s not that the Stoics had no temper or had no fear. It’s that they controlled those emotions and replaced them with love. They loved their fate (amor fati), they loved other people, they loved every minute they were alive. Love, love, love. That’s what you replace it all with.
The obstacle is the way. When you think you’re stuck, Marcus said, you’re not. Yes, one path might be closed, but there’s always others that remain open. The impediment to action advances action, Marcus famously wrote. What stands in the way becomes the way. That’s not to say that nothing can ever get in your way. It’s to say that nothing can stop you from accommodating and adapting. There is nothing so bad that we can’t make some good out of it. We can treat every problem as an opportunity to practice virtue.
Always do the right thing. “Just that you do the right thing,” Marcus wrote. “The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments.”