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Why We Still Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

6 minute read
Robertson, a founding member of the organization Modern Stoicism and the president and founder of the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit, is the author of Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor

In the middle of the second century CE, the most powerful man in the Western world sat in the legionary fortress of Carnuntum, by the River Danube, contemplating the fact that one day nobody would remember his name. “Near is your forgetfulness of all things,” he wrote, “and near the forgetfulness of you by all” —but he spoke too soon.

More than eighteen hundred years after his demise, probably from plague, we’re still talking about Marcus Aurelius. In fact, we’re going on about him more than ever. That’s largely due to the long-standing popularity of the Meditations, the notes he wrote for himself about how to apply Stoic philosophy in daily life. It’s the book Paul Giammati’s character gives everyone as a Christmas present in The Holdovers (2023): ”For my money,” he says, “it’s like the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita all rolled up into one.” It can safely be called a self-help classic.

You might be excused for thinking that the problems faced by a Roman Emperor would be of little or no relevance to your own life. Marcus, however, wrote in such an artfully vague manner, that when he talks about preparing himself mentally to deal with ungrateful and deceitful individuals, he sounds like he could be describing your annoying in-laws or office coworkers. Of course, he was probably referring to conniving senators or belligerent Germanic chieftains, but for all we know it may simply have been one of his many children who was testing his patience that day.

There are a handful of references to specific individuals and events in the Meditations but for the most part it describes coping with life’s challenges in such a general and mundane way that the wisdom comes across as timeless. We soon forget we’re peering over Marcus’ shoulder, reading his advice to himself. We project ourselves into his struggles, as though he’s inviting us to imagine coping with adversity like a Stoic philosopher, despite the fact that the Roman Empire is ancient history and we now live in the Information Age. It’s no surprise that the Internet is awash with self-improvement influencers who claim to be inspired by the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. After all, according to the recent TikTok trend, a lot of modern men think about the Roman Empire once or twice a week. The Stoic Roman emperor has become the exemplar, for many of these men—and they are predominantly men—of how to combine sage leadership with emotional resilience.

We can perhaps trace the modern resurgence of interest in Marcus Aurelius back to Richard Harris’ compelling portrayal of him in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). But is Marcus becoming a victim of his own popularity? Often his most vocal online fans don’t seem to be very familiar with his writings or the philosophy on which they’re based. You don’t have to look far to find bloggers and podcasters who seem pretty confused about Stoicism. There’s perhaps an element of jumping on the bandwagon. For instance, Andrew Tate, has recently claimed to be a fan of Marcus Aurelius. There’s a fundamental difference, though, between the self-improvement advice given by the likes of Tate and the philosophy found in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

You’ll find many people online who confuse the Greek philosophy called “Stoicism”, usually written with a capital S, with the unemotional coping style called “stoicism,” always written in lowercase. Being “stoic” in the latter sense just means employing the crudest form of emotional coping by actively suppressing or concealing one’s painful or embarrassing feelings—aka maintaining a stiff upper-lip. Tate’s advice is an odd mixture of this suppression-strategy and the promise that problematic emotions can be useful: “So all the bad things that happen to you as a man, if you’re Stoic, you get to take unlimited energy, heartbreak is unlimited energy. So is depression. So is rage. So is sadness. All these negative emotions…” When he tells young men to channel their anger into constructive activity such as working out in the gym, unfortunately, he’s missing one of the biggest insights Stoic philosophy bequeathed to us.

Stoic philosophy is based upon a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of psychology. The goal is not simply to eliminate those emotions that are irrational or excessive but to replace them with more rational and proportionate ones. In fact, Marcus nowhere recommends that we try to vent our troubling emotions, channel them in a positive direction, suppress them, or merely distract ourselves from them. That’s because the Stoics insisted that our emotions owe more to our underlying beliefs than most of us typically realize. This insight inspired the pioneers of modern cognitive psychotherapy who frequently quoted Epictetus’ saying: “People are not distressed by events but by their opinions about them.” If you want to deal with your anger in a healthy way, you’d be better to figure out what it was about your attitude that caused you to become so annoyed in the first place. Lifting weights or punching a bag when you’re angry, probably won’t do anything to change those.

Marcus recommends looking for alternative ways of thinking about annoying events, and people, in order to permanently improve the way we feel about them. That means using reason to challenge our own beliefs and attitudes, something utterly alien to some of the current fans of Marcus Aurelius in the self-improvement field, especially in the so-called manosphere. The Stoics claimed that anger is usually a reaction to fear or the belief that we have been injured. In many cases that belief is perhaps mistaken: if a woman rejects you or someone insults you—have you really been harmed or is it all in your mind? Remove the underlying sense of injury and the anger often feels pointless. Ironically, if Tate had read Marcus Aurelius more closely, he’d have learned that Stoicism teaches that anger is often a sign that our feelings are easily hurt—it accompanies emotional fragility not toughness. As another Stoic, Seneca, famously put it: “All cruelty springs from weakness.” Those who equate Stoicism with “healthy” masculine aggression may be surprised to learn that, in line with his philosophy, Marcus believed true “manliness” to consist not in anger or aggression, but in the strength required to exhibit kindness.

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