Marcus Aurelius‘ reign from 161 to 180 was defined by a pandemic (which originated in the distant east and quickly overwhelmed Rome’s institutions), civil unrest, interminable wars in the provinces, personal health issues, cultural decadence, income inequality, and so much else.
As he would observe in Meditations, people have always been people, and life has always been life. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Yet, Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics still found a way to be successful, happy, strong, productive, and good, despite all these difficulties. In this, we must learn from them. The history of Stoic philosophy is filled with all sorts of unique characters from unique backgrounds — from slaves to generals, lawyers to writers, daughters to doctors — who thrived amidst both adversity and prosperity.
After more than a decade now about writing about the Stoics, most recently with my book Lives of the Stoics, here are seven lessons we can take from the ancient world and apply to our modern times.
1. Find a mentor
“Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you … For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” — Seneca
Fittingly, the story of Stoicism begins with misfortune. On a merchant voyage, Zeno was shipwrecked. He lost everything. He washed up in Athens where he walked into a bookstore and listened to the bookseller reading dialogues from Socrates. After the reading, Zeno asked the question that would change his life: “Where can I find a man like that?” That is: Where can I find my own Socrates? Where can I find someone to study under?
In that moment, Crates, a well-known Athenian philosopher, happened to be passing by. The bookseller simply extended his hand and pointed. You could say it was fated. The Stoics of later years certainly would have. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey,” or according to another account, “You’ve done well, Fortune, driving me thus to philosophy,” he reportedly said.
Nearly all of the ancient Stoics had a formative mentor, living or dead. Cleanthes had Zeno. Cato had Sarpedon. Seneca had Attalus. Epictetus had Musonius Rufus. Marcus Aurelius had Rusticus — who turned him onto Epictetus. Chrysippus had Cleanthes. Thrasea had Cato. Antipater had Diogenes. Panaetius had Crates. Posidonius had Panaetius.
The Stoics knew that life is hard and requires help. “Only beasts can do it alone,” Marcus said. We need guidance from those who are further ahead on the path. We need mentors.
2. We don’t control what happened, we control how we respond
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own … ” —Epictetus
Epictetus’ most powerful insight as a teacher derives directly from his experiences as a slave. Although all humans are introduced, at some point, to the laws of the universe, almost from the moment he was born, Epictetus was reminded daily how little control he had, even of his own person. He adopted this lesson into what he described as our “chief task in life” — distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us (in his language, ta eph hemin, ta ouk eph hemin).
Once we have organized our understanding of the world into this black and white bucket, what remains — what was so central to Epictetus’s survival as a slave — is to focus on what is up to us. Our attitudes. Our emotions. Our wants. Our desires. Our opinions about what happened to us. Those choices are up to us.
“You can bind up my leg,” Epictetus would say — indeed, his leg really had been bound and broken — “but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.”
That is your “most efficacious gift,” Epictetus said — the power to always control how you respond. That’s the ingredient of freedom, whatever one’s condition.
3. Be different
“It never ceases to amaze me: We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” — Marcus Aurelius
If you want to improve, Epictetus said, if you want to achieve wisdom, you have to be okay with looking strange or even clueless from time to time.
Epictetus tells us the story of the Stoic Agrippinus, who said we are all threads in a garment — most people were indistinguishable from each other, one thread among countless others. Most people were happy conforming, being anonymous, handling their own tiny, unsung role in the fabric. In a Roman Empire that had given itself over fully to avarice and corruption, the best strategy would have been to keep a low profile, to blend in so one does not catch the attention of the capricious and cruel ruler who holds the power of life and death.
But to Agrippinus, this kind of compromise was inconceivable. Despite what everyone else was doing, Agrippinus refused to keep a low profile during Nero’s reign, refused to conform or tamp down his independent thinking. Why do this, Agrippinus was asked, why not be like the rest of us?
“I want to be the red,” he said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful …. ‘Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?” Years later there would be a song by Alice in Chains, which would say in a nutshell what Agrippinus believed in his heart: “If I can’t be my own, I’d feel better dead.”
Beautifully said. And a reminder to all of us today. Embrace who you really are, embrace what makes you unique. Be red. Be the small part that makes the rest bright.
We desperately need you to do that.
4. Value virtue
“Be wise and self-controlled, and share in courage and justice … the art by which a human would become good. We must do just that!” —Musonius Rufus
They are the most essential values in Stoicism. “If, at some point in your life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage — it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.” That was almost twenty centuries ago. We have discovered a lot of things since then — automobiles, the Internet, cures for diseases that were previously a death sentence — but have we found anything better?
… than being brave
… than doing what’s right
… than moderation and sobriety
… than truth and understanding?
No, we have not. It’s unlikely we ever will.
So memorize those four virtues. Keep them close to your heart and hand always. Act on them. Live them. Tell everyone you meet about them.
5. If you can’t do good, at least do not harm
“To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you.” —Marcus Aurelius
Shakespeare, the great observer of the Stoics, said that the good we do in life is easily forgotten, but the evil we do lives on and on. No Stoic philosopher illustrates this principle more than Diotimus.
Sometime around the turn of the first century BC, he committed what can only be described as an unjustifiable crime. He forged dozens and dozens of letters that framed the rival philosopher Epicurus as a sinful glutton and depraved maniac. It was an act of despicable philosophical slander, and Diotimus was quickly brought up on charges.
For a school that prized logic and truth as much as virtuous behavior, Diotimus’s actions were inexcusable. Seneca, who writes about all sorts of philosophers (including the Epicureans some eighty times across his surviving works), never once mentions the incident. It would be, then, Diotimus’s sole contribution to the history of Stoicism.
Musonius Rufus best captured the prevailing lesson when he said, “If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the same endures.”
6. Compromise is key
“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.” — Marcus Aurelius
Cato, one of the most vaunted and towering Stoics, built a reputation and a career out of his refusal to give an inch in the face of pressure. He refused political compromise in every form, to the point that those who did turned his name into an aphorism: “What do you expect of us? We can’t all be Catos.”
But Cato’s inflexibility did not always best serve the public good. When Pompey — one of Rome’s greatest generals and political forces — returned to Rome from his foriegn conquests, he felt out potential alliances with Cato. The two had tangled in the past. So when Pompey proposed a marriage alliance either with Cato’s niece or daughter, Cato dismissed it and dismissed it rudely.
“Go and tell Pompey,” he instructed the go-between, that “Cato is not to be captured by way of the women’s apartments.”
As Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni write in “Rome’s Last Citizen,” this “was an unmatched, unmissable opportunity.” In so rejecting the alliance, Cato drove the powerful Pompey into an alliance with Caesar instead, who promptly married his daughter Julia to Pompey. United and unstoppable, the two men would soon overturn centuries of constitutional precedent.
For Cato, to compromise — to play politics with the bedrock laws of his nation at stake — would have been moral capitulation. But this all-or-nothing strategy ended in crushing defeat. Indeed, no one did more than Cato to rage against his Republic’s fall, but few did more, to bring that fall to pass.
7. Memento Mori
“Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind … No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” —Seneca
Born with a chronic illness that loomed large throughout his life, Seneca was constantly thinking about and writing about the final act of life. “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life,” he said. “Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Most interestingly, he quibbled with the idea that death was something that lay ahead of us in the uncertain future. “This is our big mistake,” Seneca wrote, “to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” That was Seneca’s great insight — that we are dying every day and no day, once dead, can be revived.
So we should listen to the command that Marcus gave himself. “Concentrate every minute like a Roman,” he wrote, “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.” The key to this kind of concentration? “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.”
That’s the power of Memento Mori — of meditating on your mortality. It isn’t about being morbid or making you scared. It’s about giving you power. It’s to inspire, to motivate, to clarify, to concentrate like a Roman on the thing in front of you. Because it may well be the last thing you do in your life.
The Stoics were philosophers, but more than that they were doers. They didn’t have room for big words or big ideas, just stuff that made you better right here, right now. As Marcus Aurelius said:
“Justice, honesty, self-control, courage … don’t make room for anything but it — for anything that might lead you astray, tempt you off the road, and leave you unable to devote yourself completely to achieving the goodness that is uniquely yours.”