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5 life lessons from a Roman emperor

Stoicism is making a comeback. But can the private reflections of Marcus Aurelius really teach us something about life in the 21st century?

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born in AD 121 and became the emperor of Rome from AD 161 until his death in AD 180.

His classic Meditations, which he penned at around 40 years of age, are full of practical advice.

During his rule, Marcus dealt with the outbreak of plague, floods, a military campaign north of the Danube and a rebellion in Asia.

But despite his many accomplishments as emperor, Marcus is better known today as a Stoic philosopher.

His Meditations, which were never intended for publication, were written in Greek and addressed directly to himself: "A male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler."

While Marcus does not use the word "Stoic" in his Meditations, he firmly belongs within the Greek tradition of austerity, self-denial and forbearance.

So what can the private reflections of this Roman emperor teach us about our own lives?

1. Live every day as if it were your last.

One of the foundations of Stoic thought is the realisation that life is fleeting.

"You may leave this life at any moment," Marcus told himself. "Have this possibility in all that you do or say or think."

Most of us don't like to think about death. This is understandable – especially given the long life expectancies we enjoy in the developed world.

But not only does this breed complacency, it leads to a fear of death that is completely irrational, says Marcus.

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

Marcus recommends a thought experiment: imagine you are either dead or had never existed. Now it is easy to view the rest of your life as a bonus which you can "live as nature directs".

"Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence," he says.

2. Welcome adversity.

Rather than being frustrated by the various obstacles that block our path, we should embrace them, says Marcus.

It is easy to blame bad luck for our woes. Instead, we should consider ourselves lucky we can bear them "without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future".

He even has some good advice for those of us who find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning:

"At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: 'I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?'"

Many of the obstacles we face come in the form of difficult people – but rather than confronting them, we should tolerate them.

The best revenge is not to be like your enemies, says Marcus.

"In this world, there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth or justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just," he says.

Kindness is "invincible" as long as it is sincere and not tainted by fawning or pretence. 

"What can the most aggressive man do to you if you continue to be kind to him?" he asks.

3. Control the controllables.

Most people are familiar with the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

It may seem trite, but it is founded on a core Stoic principle. If we label certain things beyond our control as either good or evil, we only have ourselves to blame when they (inevitably) delight or upset us.

"If your distress has some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgement of it – and you can erase this immediately," Marcus says.

What's more, we shouldn't let our own limitations frustrate us. Marcus admits that "they cannot admire [me] for my intellect".

"So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity."

"Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?"

4. Live in the present.

A common theme throughout the Meditations is the fruitlessness of worrying about the past or the future.

A desire for fame in the next life is the subject of particular scrutiny – making Marcus' unintentional fame as a philosopher today more than a little ironic.

Existence, he writes, is like a "river in ceaseless flow, its action a constant succession of change". Past and future time is a "yawning gulf" into which all things vanish.

"Each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: the rest is life past or uncertain future," says Marcus.

Do not let the "panorama of your life" oppress you, he counsels.

"Remind yourself that it is neither the future nor the past which weighs upon you, but always the present."

5. Focus on doing good.

Given that life could end at any minute, it only makes sense to live in the present – so the best use of one's time is to do good, says Marcus.

Life ought to be lived deliberately and conscientiously, he says.

"No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts."

One of the recurring themes throughout the Meditations is the duty of the individual to the good of the "Whole", regardless of fame or reward.

"No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good," he says.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain