Advice from Marcus Aurelius: A stoic way to start the day

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and a philosopher, wrote a series of reflections in his personal journal. They were never meant for publication, but what has come to be known as his Meditations is a classic work. It has been influential among not only philosophers, but politicians, leaders, and other interested readers.

In Book 2, Marcus writes about several things that we should say to ourselves to start the day:

“…today, I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, and unsocial.”

He goes on to say that it is their ignorance of the true nature of good and evil that leads them to act in these ways. But he highlights our common humanity, that human beings share “the same mind, the same fragment of divinity.” He concludes this meditation as follows:

“We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work on opposition against one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.”

What if we began the day with such reflections, and let them guide our attitudes and actions? Rather than demonizing others, even those who are intent on doing us harm, what if we saw them as fellow human beings, sharing the same “fragment of divinity”? What if we put ourselves in their shoes, and realized that if their struggles were our own, we might be meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, and unsocial?

Finally, what if we really saw cooperation as what we were born to do, as how we were intended to live? Working in opposition is truly against nature. If we could seek goodness, truth, beauty, and unity together, perhaps these things would have more influence in our daily lives, both personal and social.

In an era of deep divisions, aggression, and malice, the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius is needed. But we need to do more than read and think about such truths. We must put them into practice. In future posts, I’ll discuss what Aurelius has to say about all of this in more detail, including the practical advice he offers on how to live a good life.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. Austin has published numerous books and journal articles related to ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of the family, and philosophy of sport. He speaks on these and a variety of other topics related to the connections between character and human fulfillment.