Marcus Aurelius: An Ideal Philosopher-King from an Ancient Era

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 3/26/2019 1:17:25 PM IST

 Although not from a royal lineage, Marcus Aurelius was adopted and trained to become one of the most respected emperors in Roman history. To be sure, his reign was not an easy period as he had to confront wars with the Parthian Empire on the East and the sporadic attacks from the Germanic tribes on the North. Also, he had to deal with a devastating problem at home – an outbreak of the plague which ravaged the entire empire for many years and left millions of his people dead. But as their emperor, he instilled strength into the hearts of his citizens, added victory to his kingdom, and ensured safety to all those living under his watch.

As a popular Roman Emperor from AD 161-180, Marcus Aurelius enjoyed absolute power. He essentially owned Rome. His word could be regarded as law. He had full access to unlimited wealth and ample opportunities to indulge in all kinds of pleasures. Considering all these at his disposal, one would assume that he would epitomize the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But that was not so in the case of Emperor Aurelius, that is, he was totally uncorrupt. And having been that way, he proved himself worthy of the position he held as a ruler. 

For Emperor Aurelius, power was not something given for self-enrichment. He saw ruling as a responsibility given to him by God to serve other people. He wrote, “The god put me here. I did not ask for this job. If I at all give it up, I would be abdicating my duty to other people and allowing some wicked ones to take over. … So, should I give up my job now or stand here until god is good enough to relieve me of my post?” With that attitude he faithfully served to the best of his ability and consistently did very well. 

Most of what we know about Emperor Aurelius comes from his personal journal called “Meditations” which, although never intended to be published, remains in print today and is still very popular. In it we discover the private thoughts of one most powerful rulers giving advice to himself on how to rightly fulfill the responsibilities and obligations of his positions. For example, we find him admonishing himself this way: “When the world provokes you into a reaction, think first whether the reaction is the right one. Does a man offend your pride? Remember that he will soon be dead, and so will you.” “Are you wrapped in a purple robe of unchallenged power? Remember, they are just rags dyed in ink.” “Are you consumed with desire for a woman? Do not pray that God will give her to you; rather pray to be relieved of your lust.” 

Emperor Aurelius was successful because he had mastery over himself – he could take complete control of his thoughts and emotions. He knew that though two persons might experience the same event, both might react very differently. As a Stoic philosopher, he was well aware that “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things” (Epictetus). So, he reminded himself in his journal, saying: “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” “Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the ‘I am hurt’ attitude and you are rid of the hurt itself.” “Do not lament your misfortune; instead, rejoice that you are the sort of person who can undergo misfortune without letting it upset you.” Thus, Emperor Aurelius was able to detach his emotions from the difficulties of the world and to maintain his calm and composure during tough times. 

According to Emperor Aurelius, conforming one’s mind to situational realities and not becoming too optimistic about others is necessary to avoid disappointments. In other words, it is advisable to prepare one’s mind for the worst and anticipate coming across all kinds of bad people in any given day. As such, Emperor Aurelius would say to himself, “Keep in your mind every morning that … you will meet with some meddlesome, ungrateful, and abusive fellows, with some envious or unfriendly persons. Remember that their perversity proceeds from ignorance of the good and evil.” Because he chose to adjust his mind that way, he could claim, “No man can do me real harm, because no man can force me to misbehave myself.” He described this sort of discipline as an art of living, which is more akin to wrestling than dancing.

Fulfilling his moral obligation was everything to Emperor Aurelius. As an enlightened person, he had no fear of pain, death or people laughing at him. He was only afraid of doing what was wrong, because that would cause chaos within his soul. He was not worried about what he could not control – things such as people’s opinions, his reputation, properties, sickness, or even death. He chose to focus only on those things which were under his control, such as his emotion, his mind, his character, his virtues, and his actions. For him, living virtuously and doing the right thing no matter what the cost was everything. He described such a kind of a life with this example: “An emerald shines even if its worth is not spoken of.” Even at death, he says, “It doesn’t matter how good a life you have led, there will still be people standing around your bed who will welcome the sad event,” because there are always be some people who will never like you no matter what you say or do. Therefore, he says, you may as well live your own life as authentically as you can. 

In short, Emperor Marcus Aurelius practiced personal virtues and ruled his people with wisdom. As a result, he has deservingly come to symbolize the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

Mazie Nakhro

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