It is a rare thing that history makes note of someone simply for being an exceptionally good person. It is rarer still that such exemplary character is found in a king or an emperor. Rarest of all, perhaps, is it to find that such a kind and contemplative monarch was also a philosopher. For centuries, such men only existed in myth, legend, and the thought experiments of Plato in The Republic. Then, at the height of the Roman Empire, came Marcus Aurelius.

Although Aurelius had every vice at his disposal, and to indulge in them would have been expected of a Roman Emperor. Instead, he spent every day of his adult life contemplating how to be the best human being he could. Aurelius is remembered equally for his role as a Stoic Philosopher as well as for being an effective Emperor. His private journal entries exhibit an impressive devotion to this pursuit and have since been compiled into one of the most significant works of Western Philosophy. This displayed commitment to living out his stoic principles places the emperor Marcus Aurelius alongside the likes of Socrates and other thinkers to whom a worldview was not merely a set of opinions or ideas but a very way of life.

A Brief History of Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius adhered to a philosophical tradition known as Stoicism, an ideology with comparable ideas to Zen Buddhism that also influenced Christianity. Founded by the Greek Philosopher Zeno of Citium ca. 300 BCE, Stoicism focuses on achieving and maintaining a mental state of steadfast serenity known as eudaimonia. This is achieved by gaining a cosmic degree of perspective and an awareness of an individual’s place within the universe.

Bust of a stern-looking bearded man, Greek Philosopher Zeno, with deep-set eyes and a prominent brow. The sculpture shows fine details in the hair and beard, suggesting a figure of wisdom or contemplation. The bust is set against a red background that fades into shadows at the edges, drawing focus to the facial features.
Bust of Greek Philosopher Zeno, BEIC Digital Library

Also crucial to this worldview is a belief in what today might be called “Intelligent Design.” Stoics of antiquity believed that all things in the universe are given order by a divine force known as the Logos, which both drives and animates all living things. Early Stoics believed the Logos could be felt using one’s logical mind. Stoics, therefore, emphasized reason and rationality as paramount in governing one’s actions and reactions throughout daily life. This belief also led to a practice of treating others with kindness and understanding through the recognition that all living things carried such a spark of the Logos within them.

Roman thinkers adopted and further developed stoicism as the growing empire absorbed the Western World. Rome soon entered the Pax Romana (ca. 27 BCE – 180 CE), a relatively steady chapter of the empire’s history in which law and order were maintained and the borders were protected. Stoicism proved unusually universal, resonating with people at all levels of Roman society. From enslaved people like Epictetus to statesmen like Seneca, Roman stoics continued to refine the lifestyle and ideology of Stoicism through their respective writings. Finally, as the Pax Romana drew to a close, Stoicism became the official philosophy of emperors.

Stoicism and the “5 Good Emperors” of Rome

Image showcasing busts of the Five Good Emperors of Rome: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius against a textured teal background. At the top, the text 'THE FIVE GOOD EMPERORS' is prominently displayed. Each bust is sculpted with great detail, representing the individual emperors with their unique facial features and hairstyles, along with the classic drapery of their clothing. The composition is symmetrically arranged to give equal prominence to all five emperors.
The Five Good Emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, by Charles River Editors

While the Pax Romana was a relatively stable era for Rome, it was not wholly untroubled. Political infighting, stemming from the Empire’s hereditary monarchy, threatened Rome’s delicate stability on several notable occasions. After the demise of the Flavian Dynasty with the murder of the emperor Domitian (81–96), the Senate took it upon itself to appoint a successor. The new emperor, Nerva (r. 96–98 CE), then made use of a loophole in Roman law by legally adopting a handpicked successor as his lawful son. Although a grown man, Trajan (98–117) accepted both the adoption and the throne. The trend of emperors adopting their most qualified successor continued several more times with Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. For this reason, the terms Adoptive Emperors or 5 Good Emperors are often used to connotate this streak of benevolent rulers.  

This system proved highly successful. Infrastructure was repaired and developed alongside many great building projects, which raised the quality of life for many Romans. The administration of the Empire was streamlined, making it generally more efficient. Roman law was enforced and revised with general fairness and an overall eye toward equity. Imperial borders were also well defended against threats, ranging from less-developed Germanic tribes to the mighty Parthian Empire in the East. Economic crises and natural disasters such as floods and devastating plagues were also handled as quickly and efficiently as could be expected.

The decrees and decisions made by the 5 Good Emperors in the face of these challenges may be attributed not only to the meritocracy of the adoptive system but also to the influence of Stoicism. As mentioned, Stoicism had a broad audience in the Roman Empire, especially among those who held office. This being the case, the Adoptive Emperors were all influenced by stoicism to some degree. But, although stoic teachings guided all five emperors, only one can indisputably be called a genuine Stoic. This honor belongs to the one and only Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius – the Stoic Emperor

Born in Rome (121 CE) to a prominent wealthy family, Marcus Aurelius was the product of an aristocratic upbringing. His early education was overseen by skilled tutors, providing him with a strong foundation in philosophy, including Stoicism. Aurelius was groomed for a life of public service and leadership and held various civic offices as a young man, including serving as consul and provincial governor. He administered justly and fairly while holding these offices, and his conduct did not go unnoticed.

Bust of a bearded man, Marcus Aurelius (reign 161–180 CE), with detailed curly hair and beard. The sculpture displays intricate details, including a decorated chest armor with a medallion and draped cloak over one shoulder. The background is a gradient from dark to light grey, highlighting the figure.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius (reign 161–180 CE), Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France

Aurelius’ character caught the attention of Emperor Antoninus Pius, who was himself highly committed to Stoic principles. Antoninus eventually chose Aurelius as his appointed successor and designed an adoption process. Before ascending to the imperial throne in 161 CE, Aurelius married Antoninus’ daughter, Faustina. This formalized his claim to the throne and ensured a smooth transition to power. They also had several children together, including the future emperor, Commodus.

Aurelius’ commitment to Stoic principles was tested during his reign as he faced significant challenges. Among these issues were a fragile economy, a devastating plague, and the Marcomannic Wars. Stoicism played a tremendous role in maintaining the emperor’s mental health during these turbulent years.

Aurelius helmed the Roman Empire while simultaneously waging several military campaigns against Germanic tribes along Rome’s northern frontiers. These conflicts further occurred against the backdrop of the outbreak of the devastating Antonine Plague. Aurelius must have experienced significant stress under these conditions, but he had a very effective method for dealing with his countless dilemmas. During his sporadic downtime, even in military encampments during extended campaigns, the emperor was known to retreat to his tent, where he put quill to parchment and articulated his various anxieties and ponderings in writing. This journaling habit, used primarily to cope with personal stress, inadvertently proved more historically significant and valuable to posterity than his actions as the Roman head of state.

Dubbed posthumously as Meditations (or in Greek, Ta eis heauton, meaning “To Himself”), the journals of Marcus Aurelius were never intended to be read by the masses. These were his private thoughts, addressed to himself, and meant to be his own guidebook to life. Aurelius may, therefore, be said to have inadvertently given to posterity what might be called the original self-help book. Even today, the emperor’s Stoic worldview provides practical guidance in navigating life’s challenges, particularly for those in positions of power.

Originally composed in Greek, the language reserved for Philosophers even in the Latin world of Rome, the work tends to be somewhat repetitive. Aurelius held on to certain “truths,” or life lessons, which he perceived and recalled over and over throughout his life in different contexts. One could read Meditations a hundred times or more over the years and learn different lessons from its unchanging words. Or, much like its author, one might also learn the same lessons over and over in a hundred different ways. This being the case, the emperor’s many proverbs are, therefore, perhaps best presented here in a condensed form and grouped by major themes.

Know who you are, and strive to be the best possible version of that:

A composite image featuring multiple overlapping busts of a classical statue in a gradual transition from shadow to light. The statues' faces blend seamlessly with one another against a textured backdrop. The visual effect symbolizes the Stoic philosophy of understanding oneself and the continuous growth towards becoming one's best version.
A Procession of Self-Discovery, Echoing the Stoic Journey Towards Personal Excellence, Culture Frontier

The First thing to note about the worldview of Marcus Aurelius is that Nature is moved by the Logos, so it is, for lack of a better term, good. Anything that occurs through nature or is in line with natural processes is also good. Since nature, through the Logos, has made us as we are, we should get to know ourselves and then be the best possible version of the person we are. We will then learn to like, even love, ourselves once we know who we are, what we believe, and why we believe it. Ideally, we should be happy being our best self, so much so that we need little else. 

“Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains. . .”

Marcus Aurelius

To accomplish this self-contained satisfaction, we must regularly self-reflect and examine our quirks and motives. Deliberate and thoughtful action did not end with self-reflection either. As far as Marcus Aurelius was concerned, there ought to be a purpose behind every action anyone ever took.

“Let no act be done without a purpose, nor otherwise than according to the perfect principles of art.”

Marcus Aurelius

The emperor’s writings reveal that he aspired to make such an intentional state of being his default setting.

“We ought then to check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the over-curious feeling and the malignant.”

Marcus Aurelius

Holding himself to the highest standard, Aurelius seems to have left no mental stone unturned.

“A man should use himself to think of those things only about which if one should suddenly ask, What hast thou now in thy thoughts? With perfect openness thou mightest, immediately answer, This or That; so that from thy words it should be plain that everything in thee is simple and benevolent. . .”

Marcus Aurelius

In many of Meditation’s passages, the emperor reminds us to make decisions assessed by reason and to trust our judgment. If we practice logical thinking regularly, we should be able to trust ourselves. We should not feel a need to gain the approval of others.

“Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when thou dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility. For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as . . . what is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving, and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own ruling power.”

Marcus Aurelius

This being said, Aurelius also distinguishes between seeking approval and considering criticism. Criticism could make one a better, more enlightened person.  The goal is to see someone else’s words here as an opportunity for improvement, not competition.

“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

Marcus Aurelius

Devoted self-examiner that he was, Marcus Aurelius certainly knew what he was about.

“Whatever anyone does or says, I must be a good man. It is as if an emerald, or gold, or purple were always saying: ‘Whatever anyone does or says, I must be an emerald and keep my own colour.’”

Marcus Aurelius

Such a life of constant introspection and reasoned actions will lead to choices that make us content, even happy, with the life we are leading. As a result, daily life should begin to feel less burdensome, even on Monday mornings. The emperor apparently had a habit of starting the day with helpful thoughts.

“At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready in your mind: ‘I am getting up to do a man’s work’ . . . I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into this world . . . Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work?”

Marcus Aurelius

Once we achieve this level of self-awareness and self-acceptance, we can like, or even love, others too. We should do this not merely because we owe it to ourselves but also to everyone else with whom we share the world.

Be good to everyone, always, no exceptions:

Artistic representation of a marble bust of a Roman figure, possibly an emperor, overlayed with faded architectural drawings and text in a classical script. The figure, which has curly hair and a draped cloak, is profiled against a background adorned with a branch bearing green leaves and yellow fruit, suggesting a blend of historical depth and the stoic value of goodness.
Stoic Virtue of Goodness, Culture Frontier

Stoicism teaches us that we should be good to everyone. We should do this not only when it’s convenient or easy but at all times. Since humans and all other living things are products of nature, they have a bit of the Divine in them. The logical conclusion was to treat everyone and everything with respect, dignity, and kindness. All we have is one another. This is because, whether we like it or not, Nature has set it up that way.

We are all born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So, to work in opposition to one another is against nature, and anger or rejection is opposition.”

Marcus Aurelius

As for himself, Marcus Aurelius makes it his mission to be a positive force for good. It is hard to disagree with him here or assert that our task should be any different. And yet, we know that some will. Not everyone will be such an upstanding citizen of the world. Some of us are selfish, destructive, and generally hurtful to others. So, what about bad or even evil people? First and foremost, Aurelius tells us to acknowledge that such people exist. We need to accept this as a fact of life.

“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has affected them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil is what is wrong.”

Marcus Aurelius

With this in mind, we must not respond to evil with evil. We must not let them change us or cause us to sink to their level. Besides, “the best revenge,” says the Aurelius, “is not to be like your enemy.”  After all, Nature made them just as it made us. Could we, too, not be just as bad had our circumstances been different?

“I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore, I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him.”

Marcus Aurelius

These bad actors likely are as they are, says the emperor, because they don’t know any better. The equation of evil with ignorance of good and vice with ignorance of virtue was an idea that had been around for quite a while in Aurelius’ time. As such, Aurelius held that some people can learn to be better. Therefore, we, those who strive to walk a virtuous path, must teach them better ways. Of course, this does not always work. Some people are uninterested, even incapable of learning to be kind, no matter how many good examples they are shown.

“To pursue the impossible is madness, and it is impossible for bad men not to act in character.”

Marcus Aurelius

But the emperor encourages us not to despair if our efforts come to nothing. Instead, he urges us to forgive these people as much as possible. In short, virtue and kindness were to be practiced at all times, not merely when convenient. One could not control the actions of others any more than they could control the weather. We cannot ultimately control someone else’s reactions or behavior toward us. What we do have control over, however, is our reactions and behavior. This remains true when bad people do bad things to us or bad things happen for any reason.

We are going to suffer in life, but we can handle it:

Artistic depiction of a classical marble bust, fractured and pieced back together, symbolizing the stoic virtue of resilience. The sculpture's composed expression against a backdrop of weathered textures and architectural lines conveys a sense of enduring strength and the ability to withstand life's challenges.
Stoic Virtue of Resilience, Culture Frontier

Adversity is an inevitable fact of life. One of the few common certainties is that challenges will arise, and inconveniences or perhaps even persecution are bound to happen. Even the unflappable Marcus Aurelius did not mince words about this. Once, while on a campaign and clearly influenced by his circumstances, he wrote: “Life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion.” His words would seem troubling were it not for the confidence he expresses in us. “Do not let the future trouble you,” he assures us, “you will come to it (if that is what you must) possessed of the same reason that you apply now to the present.”

Marcus Aurelius assures us that we have everything we need. We were born with it, and we may develop it. Beyond food, water, and rest, we need nothing else that cannot be found within ourselves.

 “Remember, however, that thou art formed by nature to bear everything, with respect to which it depends on thy own opinion to make it endurable and tolerable, by thinking that it is either thy interest or thy duty to do this.” 

Marcus Aurelius

Fear of losing or never having something at all is a nasty trick we play on ourselves.

“But if [the gods] have power, why dost thou not pray for them to give thee the faculty of not fearing any of the things which thou fearest, or of not desiring any of the things which thou desirest, or not being pained at anything, rather than pray that any of these things should not happen or happen?”

Marcus Aurelius

Your greatest weapon is, therefore, your ability to reason. Also, and of comparable importance, remember that so much of life and our experience in this world depends on how we interpret it. Aurelius reminds us that we are unharmed if we decide not to be undone by what befalls us. Almost everything comes down to our state of mind.

“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”

Marcus Aurelius

It is hard to argue with Aurelius here since modern psychology has all but affirmed that the majority of the human experience has to do with what is going on in the individual’s subjective mind. Still, the emperor has words of wisdom for this, too.

First, he urges us to look for silver linings in all situations, even those that seem disastrous. Ask yourself, he suggests, how to best use these developments to best suit your purposes.

The mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.”

Marcus Aurelius

Secondly, the emperor discourages negative self-talk and complaints, even if only to oneself. Whatever ails us, if it can be endured, we should do just that and endure it.

 “Remember, however, that thou art formed by nature to bear everything, with respect to which it depends on thy own opinion to make it endurable and tolerable, by thinking that it is either thy interest or thy duty to do this.” 

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius also has a very encouraging prediction if these changes are indeed adopted.

Within ten days, you will be regarded as a god by those who now see you as a beast or baboon – if you return to our principles and the worship of reason.”

Marcus Aurelius

So, while becoming a Stoic may take a lifetime of commitment, its benefits are within our grasp. Once we gain some perspective, there is nothing to be afraid of.

“That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse, nor does it harm him either from without or within.”

Marcus Aurelius

Again, Aurelius does not suggest that such a life is easy to achieve, but it is well worth the effort.

“In the mind of one who is chastened and purified thou wilt find no corrupt matter, nor impurity, nor any sore skinned over. Nor is his life incomplete when fate overtakes him, as one may say of an actor who leaves the stage before ending and finishing the play. Besides, there is in him nothing servile, nor affected, nor too closely bound to other things, nor yet detached from other things, nothing worthy of blame, nothing which seeks a hiding place.”

Marcus Aurelius

If we persist in our efforts with these things in mind, Aurelius seems confident we can become “like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.” That said, just as the crashing waves are laid to rest, so shall we be, too. This is the next important thing to bear in mind.

Above all, remember you are mortal:

A digital composition featuring a classical bust superimposed on a collage of textures and ephemera, with a full moon and botanical elements in the background. The bust is depicted in grayscale with visible cracks, symbolizing the fragility of life. The warm, earthy tones and scattered, abstract elements around the figure suggest a contemplation of mortality through the lens of stoic philosophy.
Stoic Courage in the Face of Mortality, Culture Frontier

Marcus Aurelius’ last lesson, perhaps the most difficult to accept, is that we will all die someday.

 “You may leave this life at any moment, have this possibility in your mind in all that you do, say, or think.”

Marcus Aurelius

Naturally, the vast majority of us do not spend much, if any, time dwelling on this universal circumstance. Our human minds have extreme difficulty processing our own demise. Still, Aurelius was no average person, and it seems he spent more time considering his impending passing than any other subject.

The refrain of memento mori (“Remember your mortality”) throughout the emperor’s journals occurs so frequently that some see it as the cornerstone of his worldview. Sometimes, he seems understandably melancholy when contemplating this inevitable end to everything he has ever known.

“In man’s life, his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux . . . All things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dream and delusion.”

Marcus Aurelius

 Indeed, if anything could move even the most committed stoic, it is this.

Be this as it may, Marcus Aurelius held that, while many emotions may be appropriate when confronting one’s mortality, fear is not among them. As the emperor saw it:

“Death is nothing more than a function of nature – and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child.”

Marcus Aurelius

As cold a position as this may seem, Aurelius did not leave the subject without some words of comfort. Envisioning his own passing, Marcus Aurelius said the following.

“You embarked, you set sail, you made port. Go ashore now. If it is to another life, nothing is empty of the gods . . . and if to insensibility, you will cease to suffer pains and pleasures, no longer in thrall to a bodily vessel, which is a master as far inferior as the servant is superior.”

Marcus Aurelius

In other words, death is assured, but one of two things awaits us. One possibility is no different than merely another tomorrow, while the other option amounts to something we won’t even notice. Whichever it was, the emperor eventually found out on March 17th, 180 CE, when he died from the plague that now bears his name.

Aurelius was, of course, unable to analyze the death experience for us. Still, the fact remains that he bequeathed to posterity an excellent guide for life. In a few briefly chosen words addressed to himself, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we are just as capable of facing what may come our way.

“What then, can escort us on our way, one thing and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others action or failure to act.”

Marcus Aurelius