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Who Was Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor brings Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) to life for a new generation of readers. Founding member of the organization Modern Stoicism Donald Robertson answers your questions about the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the tremendous challenges he faced and overcame with the help of Stoic philosophy.

Who was Marcus Aurelius?

DR: Marcus Aurelius was, in a word, the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity.  He was also the last of what the 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon, termed the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome.  Marcus was born into a wealthy patrician family at Rome in 121 CE and died in 180 CE of a contagious disease, presumably the Antonine Plague named after his imperial dynasty. From the exceptionally young age of twelve, Marcus began studying philosophy, and soon dedicated himself completely to Stoicism.  

Many people became familiar with Marcus through his portrayal by Sir Alec Guinness in the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and by Richard Harris, in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Gladiator (2000).  Marcus is most famous today, however, as the author of the Meditations, a personal collection of his reflections on applying Stoic philosophy to his life. It is one of the most widely-read classics of self-improvement ever written.  

What is Stoic philosophy?

DR: Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded in Athens around 301 BCE by a Phoenician merchant named Zeno, who came from the city of Citium in Cyprus.  It was influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates.  Stoicism flourished among generations of philosophers in Athens, where it began, but later also became popular in Rome.  Augustus, the founder of the Roman empire, had two Stoic philosophy tutors.  By the time of Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism was a living tradition well over four centuries old.

Stoicism is based on the ethical doctrine that our only true good consists in living consistently in accord with reason, which the Stoics considered to be synonymous with cultivating moral virtue.  This means that most of the “external goods” considered important by the majority of people – such as wealth and reputation – are much less important than they seem and, indeed, of no real intrinsic value to us at all.  That ethical worldview has obvious psychological consequences, of course.  Someone who places more value on their character than their wealth or reputation should be less perturbed by the threat of poverty or ridicule.  For that reason, Stoicism has always been associated with emotional resilience in the face of misfortune or adversity, which has made it of considerable interest to psychologists today.  

Why was Stoicism important to Marcus Aurelius? And why is it important today?

DR: Several influential Roman statesmen had been students of Stoic philosophers during the era of the Roman Republic. This was followed by Augustus, the founder of the Roman empire, who had two Stoic tutors. Augustus, late in life, wrote about the value of philosophy, although none of these texts survive today. This set a precedent for Roman statesmen, during the imperial period, to have an interest in the philosophy. Emperor Nero had the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca as his tutor.  However, Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor who had, by far, the most extensive training in Stoicism. Marcus’ parents probably thought that studying Stoic logic and ethics would help prepare him for a career in politics. However, Stoicism became even more important to him as a way of coping psychologically with the many great difficulties he faced during his time in power.

Today, Stoicism is important because it is the main philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy.  The Stoics, following Socrates, argued that our emotions are more shaped by our beliefs than we normally realize. This became the basis of the cognitive theory of emotion used today. So we could say that the self-help and psychological therapy advice found in ancient Stoicism now has a large amount of, albeit indirect, scientific support from modern research studies on CBT.

The most famous quote from ancient Stoicism comes from Epictetus, although a version of it is found in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: “People are not upset by events but by their opinions about them.” This was cited repeatedly by Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of CBT, and it became a very common way to teach clients about the central role cognition, or thinking, plays in determining our emotions.   

What are some little-known facts about Marcus Aurelius’ life?

DR: Marcus led a sort of religious dance troupe, in his youth—one of the priestly colleges, called the Salii, or “leaping” priests. According to legend, the Salii were founded by Numa, the second king of Rome, from whom Marcus’ family claimed descent. Marcus was very interested in religion and he seems to have been highly dedicated to learning the archaic chants and rituals of the Salii. There are a handful of references to dancing in the Meditations, which may refer back to his early love of these dances.

Another interesting piece of trivia is that Marcus introduced the use of safety equipment for tightrope walkers in Rome. Child entertainers were traditionally made to perform dangerous feats, dancing on ropes. They were often injured in the process, and the sense of danger was probably part of the thrill for Roman audiences. Marcus, however, passed a law requiring that mattresses should be used to break their fall.

In the first book of the Meditations, Marcus names the people from whom he learned the most valuable lessons in life. They are all either his family members or  teachers.  The only woman he names is his mother, Domitia Lucilla.  Marcus was tutored in Greek rhetoric by Herodes Atticus, the most famous orator, and intellectual, of his lifetime. However, Marcus does not mention him.  Instead, he recalls moral lessons learned from an unnamed man, probably a humble slave or freedman, who appears to have been his tutor (tropheus) when he was a small child. 

What books would you recommend for beginners who want to learn more about Stoicism?

DR: My previous book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, uses anecdotes about Marcus’ life to explain how Stoic philosophy can be used as a form of self-help today. The most popular modern book on Stoicism, though, is The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Lessons in Stoicism is a good introduction written by an academic philosopher, John Sellars, who is also the chair of the Modern Stoicism organization. 

Donald J. Robertson, a cognitive-behavior psychotherapist and writer, is a founding member of the organization Modern Stoicism and the president and founder of the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. The author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, he lives in Canada and Greece.  

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