Who is Marcus Aurelius?
Aurelius was born in 121 A.D. and became Emperor of Rome in 161 A.D. Considered the last of the “five good emperors,” Aurelius led Rome in the final days of the Pax Romana, the great Roman peace established by Augustine in 27 B.C. He died in the year 180.
Despite being the most powerful man of his time and being fabulously wealthy, Aurelius patterned himself as a Stoic philosopher and is sometimes referred to as the “Philosopher King.” He led a simple, contemplative life and is the author of an important philosophical and spiritual book called “the Meditations.”
Stoicism is not just a philosophy or intellectual pursuit; Stoics consider it a way of life. To the Stoic, the highest good is to lead a life of virtue. The route to virtue is the practice of prudence, justice, temperance and courage.
Stoicism was founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno in the 3rd century B.C. The name itself refers simply to the “stoa poikile,” the painted porch where Zeno and his followers met to discuss their ideas.
One of the most important of the ancient Stoic philosophers was Epictetus. He lived from 50 to 135 A.D. He was born a slave, but acquired his freedom and by the end of his life he was respected as one of the wisest men of his age and, perhaps, the only truly free man because he lived his philosophy with a vigor.
Epictetus taught that external events are beyond our control – thus, we should accept whatever happens to us or around us calmly and dispassionately. At the same time, individuals are responsible for their own internal experiences and their own actions. The internal life should be examined and controlled through rigorous self-discipline.
Epictetus greatly influenced the thought and life style of Marcus Aurelius and he is quoted often in “the Meditations.”
Aurelius lived in troubled times. His reign was marked by wars and uprisings and political difficulties. Aurelius, however, began his philosophical training as a young man; thus, he was prepared for the struggle when he became emperor. Aurelius did all that was expected of him as leader of his people and worked diligently for what he considered the good of the empire while also maintaining his own inner discipline. He endeavored to master his thoughts, feelings and passions despite the turmoil going on around him.
In a simple form, his philosophy might be seen as a precursor to the often-quoted Serenity Prayer of modern-day theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Aurelius was by no means a Christian. More likely he was a Pantheist seeing God as encompassing all existence rather than as a separate being or personal savior. But he shared the same spiritual understanding.
The life of Marcus Aurelius shows that even someone with vast privilege and authority can aspire to a nobler, pious and mystical existence.