Read an Excerpt from Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor and Learn More About Stoicism 

Stoic philosophy is not just for ancient philosophers. 

marcus aurelius the stoic emperor excerpt ebb jan 2024

The idea of Stoicism is on the rise once again, as is interest in the philosophy’s ancient leaders. One of the people most associated with Stoicism is Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who faced and successfully overcame tremendous adversity during his reign with the help of Stoic philosophy. 

While Stoic philosophy in Marcus’ time may look a little different than Stoicism in the modern age, the main point is the same: focus on the things you can control (your thoughts, actions, and emotions) and accept the things that are out of your control (the natural goings-on of the world around you) without complaint. 

This biography shows us the contrast between Marcus’ inner philosophical journey and the external events of his life as a Roman emperor. At the same time, tt provides a practical example of how we can use Stoicism in our own lives. 

This novel explores key relationships between Marcus and influential figures in his life, Marcus’ own Meditations, and his attitude towards important aspects of his rule. It follows his attitude towards women, slavery, the treatment of Christians under his rule, the moral dilemmas he faced when capturing enemies in warfare, and the naming of his notorious son Commodus as his successor. 

For an introduction to the role that Stoicism played in Marcus’ rule, read an excerpt from the book below. 




Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor

By Donald J. Robertson


Marcus Aurelius did not have a heart of stone. When the news was brought to him that one of his most beloved tutors had died, the young Caesar was distraught, and tears poured down his cheeks—he may perhaps have started to beat his chest and tear his clothes in grief. Palace servants, afraid his reputation would be harmed by such a public display of raw emotion, rushed to his side, trying to restrain him. His adoptive father, the emperor Antoninus Pius, a thoughtful and gentle man, gestured for them to step aside. He whispered, “Let him be only a man for once; for neither philosophy nor empire takes away natural feeling.”1  

Such displays of emotion were not out of character for Marcus. We hear of him in his fifties, as emperor, being moved to tears when an advocate giving a speech uttered the words, “Blessed are those who died in the plague!”2 Toward the end of his life, the emperor likewise found himself weeping over a letter informing him that a catastrophic earthquake had leveled the city of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey). His tears soaked the parchment as he read, “She is a desert through which the west winds blow.”3 He was a man capable of knowing intense grief. Perhaps especially for that reason, he committed himself to a lifelong training in philosophy: Marcus came to realize that although a great leader may experience sorrow or anger, he cannot allow intense emotion to cloud his judgment.  

Throughout his personal notebooks, known today as the Meditations, Marcus returns many times to one central question: How can we prevent reason from being usurped by the passions? If we focus on what is before us, he concluded, following reason from moment to moment “with heroic truth in every word,” we will be achieving the goal of life.4 The pages of the Meditations show its writer again and again striving to maintain a rational and brutally honest attitude toward life’s most troubling events, from personal tragedies, such as the loss of his beloved tutor, to international catastrophes, such as the great wars that Rome faced during his time as emperor.  

This was no bookish or academic philosophy but rather a way of life. The love of truth was almost a religion to Marcus. The divine Nature of the universe and all that exists, he believed to be synonymous with a primordial goddess named Truth, or Aletheia.5 Liars and the self-deceived are guilty of impiety because they place themselves at odds with divine Nature. The philosopher who lives in accord with truth, by contrast, is “like a priest and minister of the gods.”6 Indeed, Rome’s emperor held the office of pontifex maximus, supreme priest. Marcus doubtless saw his commitment to philosophical truth as an integral part of fulfilling his religious obligations, both as an individual and as the head of state.  

He was, moreover, a student of human nature whose search for truth extended to the lives of others, even leading him to experiment with writing biographies. As a young man, he sought the guidance of his rhetoric master on the methods to employ in composing a history.7 In addition to his own memoirs he began work on his Acts of Ancient Greeks and Romans, though he eventually scrapped both projects.8 Studying the character of others became a contemplative exercise for him; as he writes in the Meditations, “Accustom yourself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.”9  

We can perhaps see evidence of Marcus’s own character evolving in his writings. The lively and good-humored letters of his youth focus on his studies in rhetoric and the trivia of daily life—aches and pains, family vacations, squabbles among his friends. It is hard to reconcile them with the author, decades later, of the Meditations, which strikes a more solemn and reflective note. (Although, to some extent this is to be expected as the Meditations is a different type of writing.) Perhaps we can detect a similar transformation in various sculptures made of him during his lifetime. In his prime, some show him arching his eyebrows, as if considering a problem with studied logic. In others, his eyes are turned dreamily upward, as though contemplating the heavens.10 Statues portraying the emperor toward the end of his life present him gazing dead ahead, his features fallen into a look of solemn resignation. The former befit an aspiring philosopher, the latter a seasoned military commander who has lived through war after war and witnessed a horrific plague.  

If we are going to enter the mind of the Stoic emperor, however, we need to consider the evidence of his thoughts and actions carefully. Marcus had a philosophy of life which differs significantly from the prevailing values of any modern society. Some of his recent biographers have dealt rather dismissively with the Stoic philosophy that played such an important role in his life: “A more priggish, inhuman, killjoy and generally repulsive doctrine [than Stoicism] would be hard to imagine,” sneers one, “but it will be abundantly clear why the programme appealed to Marcus Aurelius.”11 Such a view of Stoicism is a caricature based on popular misconceptions, and it does the philosophy no justice. Stoicism flourished for five centuries in the ancient world, and numerous proponents spoke to its benefits and appeal. Today thousands of psychological research studies provide scientific evidence for the effectiveness of modern cognitive psychotherapy, which was originally inspired by the Stoics.12 Many modern readers likewise find in Stoicism a profoundly life-changing philosophy—one which heals certain emotions rather than merely eliminating all of them.  

1.SHA, Ant. Pius 10.5. 
2. Philostr. VS 2.1.8, modified. 3. Philostr. VS 2.9.3. 
4. M. Aur. Med. 3.12. 
5. M. Aur. Med. 9.1. 
6. M. Aur. Med. 3.4.  

7. “I advised you as to the preparatory studies necessary for the writing of history, since that was your desire,” Fronto to Marcus Aurelius as Caesar, ? 139 A.D., sect. 8, Fronto, Ep., vol. 1.  

8. M. Aur. Med. 3.14.  

9. M. Aur. Med. 6.53.  

10. Compare the alleged criticism made of him by the usurper Avidius Cassius: “Marcus Antoninus philosophizes and meditates on first principles, and on souls and virtue and justice, and takes no thought for the state” (SHA, Avid. Cass. 14.5).  

11. McLynn, Marcus Aurelius, 209.  

12. See Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  

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marcus aurelius the stoic emperor excerpt ebb jan 2024

Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor

By Donald J. Robertson

“Robertson has written a very thorough and very readable account of Marcus’s life and the events and people that shaped him. Anyone who wants to understand the author of Meditations should read this book.” —Robin Waterfield, author of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: The Annotated Edition