Marcus Aurelius on What His Father Taught Him About Humility, Honor, Kindness, and Integrity
By Maria Popova
Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) is considered the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors, but he is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to philosophy as one of the most influential Stoics. His proto-blog Meditations (public library | free download) is as much a portal into his inner life as a record of his “personal micro-culture” — the myriad influences he absorbed and integrated into what became his own philosophical ideas, which endure as pillars of Western thought.
From his greatest teacher, Quintus Junius Rusticus, he learned “to read attentively” rather than skimming and not to be satisfied with superficial knowledge; from the politician Claudius Maximus, another one of his mentors, “a personality in balance: dignity and grace together”; from his brother Severus, “to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you”; from his mother, generosity and an “inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.” But perhaps his greatest influence was his adopted father — after his biological father’s death when Marcus was a small boy, he was raised by the emperor Antoninus Pius, whom he came to consider his father and whose values of humility, honor, nonjudgmental kindness, and personal integrity made a lifelong impression on the young man.
Marcus enumerates his father-figure’s virtues:
Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.
Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.
His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.
A sense of when to push and when to back off.
His ability to feel at ease with people — and put them at their ease, without being pushy.
His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely.
His restrictions on acclamations — and all attempts to flatter him… And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.
A related virtue, one at least as rare today as it was in Ancient Rome, was that he neither glorified privilege nor romanticized poverty:
Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness
The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance — without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.
No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic. They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life, accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both himself and them.
Those who suffer from debilitating chronic pain would appreciate this particular superhuman feat:
The way he could have one of his migraines and then go right back to what he was doing — fresh and at the top of his game.
Marcus summarizes his father’s virtues:
You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness — indomitable.
Meditations, particularly the translation by Gregory Hays, is excellent in its entirety. An inferior translation is in the public domain and thus available as a free download. Complement it with Montaigne on how to live, a similarly timeless trove of wisdom some fifteen centuries after Marcus Aurelius, then revisit Seneca on the shortness of life — perhaps the greatest Stoic meditation of all.
Published October 7, 2014