Part 2: The Philosopher Emperor

By: Eric Di Gravio

Marcus Aurelius: In the Capitoline Museum

In my previous blog post, I started to describe how Marcus Aurelius thought that we should face all our struggles without complaint. But where does the strength to do this come from? Let’s continue with what Marcus thought the answer to that question was:

You have power over your mind-not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

A strong person, according to Marcus, recognizes that strength comes from within. It’s in our thoughts and in how we choose to perceive the world around us. The Stoic philosophy that Marcus learned as a young adult taught him that no events which happen are in themselves evil, it’s only our perception of them that is evil. If we have the inner fortitude and belief that we will overcome whatever hardship we are facing, then that is the source of true strength. Marcus explains this well and takes it a step further when he says:

Apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.

Again, it all comes down to perception. Question yourself: Is this difficult task or unfortunate event really a bad thing, or is it simply an opportunity to make myself better? If we begin to face our problems with this in mind (which I understand is no easy feat), then we will be facing it with all the strength we can muster, and we can’t ask for much more than that.

One last passage on this topic that I found particularly powerful is the following:    

Thou sufferest this justly: for thou choosest rather to become good tomorrow than to be good today.

Medical school and being a doctor isn’t going to be easy, it was never going to be. But all the exams we write, the facts we memorize, the patients we will see and inevitably, the mistakes we will make along the way, are simply necessary steps to make us better people, and doctors of tomorrow. 

What Motivates Us

In his Meditations, Marcus spends much time discussing the purpose of his life. As he mentions over and over again, he finds the praise of others (remember that he was considered a god), the pursuit of fame, glory and wealth all as hollow things. His line of thinking is, if everything including yourself is transient, then what is the point of achieving fame and glory when people are bound to forget you eventually? As Marcus says:

What is even an eternal remembrance? A mere nothing.  What then is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens

This was not meant to be some doom and gloom statement about how we are all going to die and nothing matters. Instead, by constantly repeating statements like the ones above, Marcus was attempting to keep himself well-grounded and not to get caught up in all the extravagances that many prior, and certainly many later emperors did. He was reminding himself then, and us now, what the truly important things in life are: acting justly and for the common good, and being thankful for what life has given you. Marcus then goes a step further and says:

Have I done something for the general interest? Well then I have had my reward. Let this always be present to thy mind, and never stop doing such good.

Here again, Marcus is reiterating the fact that acting for the common good is the highest reward one can receive, even if its not appreciated at the time. Indeed, it is the very act of working for the common good that should serve as our motivation for everything we do. In other words, the most important thing is being able to go to bed each night with the satisfaction of knowing that we helped someone that day, and that that act in and of itself should be all we need to keep us satisfied and motivated.

Final Thoughts

I couldn’t help but wonder what Marcus would say if now, almost 2000 years later, I were to ask him for one piece of advice about how to be a good person and leader. But then I came across this passage in Meditations that I think answers that question pretty clearly.

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.

Alright then Marcus, point taken. I guess he would say that we all already have it in our hearts what it takes to be a good person and doctor, we just have to have the strength and dedication to do it.

A note on translations:

Since the Meditations are essentially Marcus’s reflections on the philosophical school of thought called Stoicism, and the vast majority of philosophical teachings at the time were written in Greek, Meditations too was written in Greek (even though Latin is the language most commonly associated with Ancient Rome). As in any work of literature originally written in ancient Greek, there are various different translations which all have the same essence, but with slightly different wording. Therefore, if you look up these quotes online or have heard/read a slightly different quote than one I have used here, note that it is simply a different translation of the same piece of work, and hopefully you can see that it captures the same meaning.

Select Quotes from Meditations:

  • “And though wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside…discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.”
  • “Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame”.
  • “Which of these things is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled because it is blamed? Is such a thing as an emerald made worse than it was, if it is not praised?”
  • “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrongdoer.”
  • “Let not future things disturb thee, for thou wilt come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with thee the same reason which now thou usest for present things.”
  • “No man can escape his destiny, the next inquiry being how he may best live the time that he has to live.”
  • “Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.”
  • “Neither in thy actions be sluggish nor in thy conversation without method, nor wandering in thy thoughts…nor in life be so busy as to have no leisure.”
  •  “This too is a property of the rational soul, love of one’s neighbour, and truth and modesty.”
  • “If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it.”

Author: Eric  Di Gravio

Eric is a second year medical student at Western University. He also completed his BMSc in Biochemistry of Infection and Immunity here at Western. Eric is a self-proclaimed history buff but also enjoys basketball and attempting (and failing) to match his grandmother’s cooking skills.
Photo Credit: Marcus Aurelius, Creative Commons