Five Timeless Life Lessons from One of the Greatest Leaders of All Time: Marcus Aurelius
What does this Roman Emperor have to say about life?
This year marks the first time I’ve read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations cover to cover. I’ve heard that some very successful people read it every year. I now understand why.
Marcus Aurelius is often referred to as the last of the Five Good Emperors. He ruled the Roman Empire between 161–180 AD and was greatly influenced by Stoic philosophy, which is made quite clear in Meditations — a collection of his thoughts over the years.
Meditations is a strange book to read because there is no running narrative. Sometimes his thoughts are in point-form and often one passage is disconnected from the next. Always, you’re left guessing at what he’s referring to.
What you do get, however, is to peek into the mind of one of the most powerful rulers in all of history. And what you find there is surprising. His thoughts are often self-critical, in particular when his actions failed to live up to his high moral standards.
But, more importantly, are the themes of tranquility, duty, and perseverance that traverse the massive space of time between then and now. It’s incredible to me how relevant these ancient ideas are in today’s world.
So, without further ado, here are 5 timeless lessons from Marcus Aurelius.
#1 On the preciousness of time
Marcus Aurelius spent a lot of time reminding himself of his impending death. But, he doesn’t do it in a morbid way. The purpose of this was to cause him to act because time is short.
Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize … that there is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it … it will be gone and will never return (Book 2, Section 4).
We all have plans, goals, wishes, and dreams. Don’t they all seem to be in the future somewhere? Don’t we so often put them off because we find something better to do right now?
So, instead of starting a business, writing a book, or building that shed in the backyard, we sit down on the couch and watch the latest TV series that’s sweeping the world. We ignore what we really want because we believe we will have time to do it later.
The problem is that this mentality easily becomes a habit. And sooner or later we realize that this habit has caused us to squander the most precious thing given to us: time.
#2 On overcoming obstacles
Marcus Aurelius often looked to the natural world for inspiration. He saw in nature a kind of dignity and perseverance that he clearly admired.
Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal (Book 8, Section 35).
We so often come up against obstacles in our own lives. These are critical moments for us — turning points. It is here that we choose whether to continue to pursue our goals and dreams or give up.
Have you walked away from an obstacle because it seemed insurmountable?
If you’ve ever walked on a mountain trail, you’ve probably noticed how some trees have roots growing through solid rock. You may have stopped to marvel at the tree’s ability to thrive under these brutal conditions. You may have even admired the tree’s perseverance.
Yet, to the tree, it simply did what was required of it in each moment. Inch by inch, it overcame the obstacles before it. And it did so without complaint or envy of the situation of other trees.
Look at what it accomplished by turning its energy toward its problems — something miraculous.
#3 On doing what’s right
Even though he was an Emperor with unimaginable power, Marcus Aurelius tried not to let it go to his head. He reminded himself frequently that he is a part of a larger whole, over which even he has limited control, and that he should focus his efforts on helping the whole, rather than just himself.
So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t (Book 10, Section 6).
For an Emperor, Marcus Aurelius had a surprising mindset. Throughout Meditations, he speaks about reigning in his ego, selfishness, and expectations for the good of everyone.
He also has the unique perspective that what is good for everyone is also what is good for him. In his eyes, putting himself first went against the order of things, because he saw himself merely as a part of a larger whole.
#4 On seeking truth
Do you seek the truth?
Or, do you seek to be validated?
Bring to mind the last argument you had, with your spouse, friend, colleague, whoever. How defensive were you? How desperate were you to get your point across? To be right? Did you even bother listening to the other person’s perspective?
Today, politics is fraught with people talking past each other. No one wants to listen to anyone else because everyone thinks they’re right.
Unfortunately, not everyone can be right. And that means you’re probably wrong — about more things than you’d care to know.
But, instead of this being a bad thing, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that it is in our best interest to see our mistakes and misjudgments.
If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance (Book 6, Section 21).
#5 On the changing nature of reality
As any mindfulness guru will tell you, everything changes. One moment to the next, our lives and our world are in constant flux. Today we are happy. Yesterday we were sad. The day before that we were frustrated. As Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself, don’t hold on to any of it.
Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it (Book 4, Section 36).
But, it’s not that things change randomly. A consistent theme in Meditations is that things change for a reason — there is a logic to it all. And, if you look closely enough, you can see the logic for yourself.
We often feel stuck in our circumstances. Trapped, even. And this can cause us to be paralyzed with fear or doubt or anger. But, Marcus might say, keep two things in mind.
First, don’t hold on so tightly to your thoughts and feelings. See them as they are — transitory. They come and go, just like the wind. Try to see this in your mind.
Second, recognize that just as you ended up in your present circumstances for a reason, so too will you be brought out of them. If you look hard enough, you will see how one thing leads to the next. Certain conditions brought you to where you are now. Other conditions will take you somewhere else.
See that you don’t always have control over these conditions. You can’t control everything. It is worth recognizing and accepting this. Because whether you are in a good place or a bad one, things change. This is the nature of reality.
Thanks for reading!
The quotes found in this article were taken from the translation of Meditations by Gregory Hays.