Today, most people would describe a good man as respectful, takes care of his family, humble, does what is morally right, and is honest and loyal. A good man would be someone that people can look up to, trust, and befriend. He would treat everyone equally regardless of their socioeconomic status and give respect until he is given a valid reason not to. These qualities still applied to a good man several centuries ago and was expressed by Marcus Aurelius, who was very serious and determined to be a good man, from childhood. This goes to show why he was named one of the “good emperors” of Rome.
Marcus Aurelius, also known as, M. Antoninus, was born in Rome, in A.D. 121, on April 26th. As a child, he regularly gave thanks to the gods, because he was very fortunate to have “good” people in his life, including his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius. As a result, Marcus Aurelius spoke about the virtues of the excellent or good man in his book. He also lists qualities that he learned from his family members that contribute to those of a good man. These include good morals, modesty, a manly character, piety, beneficence, abstinence, and simplicity in living. He also states how he learned to love his family, truth, and justice, “From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice…” (Aurelius 31).
Not only was Marcus well brought up, but he was also educated. He studied rhetoric and eloquence. He even tried writing poetry and was trained in law. However, his interest was elsewhere, he wanted to be a philosopher, and his focus was Stoicism. At the young age of 11, he began to dress plainly as philosophers did and engaged in a Greek regimen and hard study. He was very diligent at doing this until his health was altered, for a short time. Later, in the year 146, he married the emperor’s daughter, Faustina, who was also his cousin, and she soon gave birth to a daughter in 147.
Marcus Aurelius became a Roman Emperor in 161 CE and he reigned until 180 CE. He was regarded as one of the last five “good” emperors, because of this he is one of the most interesting historical figures in the ancient world. However, he was not only a good emperor, but he was a great philosopher and most of his writings consisted of the virtues of Stoicism, which teaches one how to become a good person, obtain self-control, wisdom, moderation, morality, and courage while living in harmony with nature. Being strong through tough times without complaint, striving for excellence, focusing on self-improvement, and never to criticize are all goals of Stoicism. Marcus learned these characteristics early in his life with the help of his great tutors or grammaticis as shown here, “From Alexander the Grammaticus: not to find fault and not to criticize in a pestering way…” (Stephens 22).
Marcus was referred to as the “good emperor”. This is mainly because the Romans hated kings. However, Marcus changed their perspectives of a king or emperor because he practiced Stoicism and its virtues that was widely accepted. According to William D. Desmond, “…Marcus was one whom they came to admire for some two centuries, and one of the main reasons for this was that he practiced the Stoic virtues that others so widely professed” (90).
Marcus needed the peacefulness that Stoicism had to offer. There were many things going on in his life that caused him to be stressed and unhappy in his adult years. For one, his wife was unfaithful to him, and 6 out of the fourteen children she bore him, survived. He was sick, possibly with ulcer(s) and his family was causing him to feel anxious. Just to add to his sorrow, the stresses of being an emperor was also weighing him down:
During his reign, there were numerous frontier uprisings, and Marcus often went personally to oversee campaigns against upstart tribes. His own officials—most notably, Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria—rebelled against him. His subordinates were insolent to him, which insolence he bore with “an unruffled temper (59).
In this quote, we can see that his own people didn’t obey him as emperor and can only imagine how frustrated this would make him concerning the fact that he had a temper, and found it a challenge to remain calm. However, Stoicism is what helped him gain self-control.
Stoics also believed that the future is already planned out for everyone, and there is no way of escaping what’s destined to happen. Thus, Irvine explains it this way, “For ancient Romans, then, life was like a horse race that is fixed: The Fates already knew who would win and who would lose life’s contests”. (130) As a result, one might wonder why they would even attempt to live a good life if someone had their future set in stone. Stoics, however, didn’t have this mindset, the lived each day in a way so that they could positively affect their future.
He had a fatalistic view of life, meaning everything is predetermined, and he believed that anyone who didn’t would be disrespecting nature, or not accepting of the truth. To avoid this, we must become close to our environment and the people we are surrounded by, interacting with them. In Irvine’s words, if we reject the decrees of fate, Marcus says, we are likely to experience tranquility-disrupting grief, anger, or fear” (102) This would cause a person to live a very unhappy life, and lack self-guidance and control over their emotions. On the other hand, Marcus says that a “good” man will accept anything that fate has in store for him.
Even if a child dies, a stoic will remind the mother to accept the death as a natural way of life. Grief is normal, but too much grief would be a waste of emotions for the mother because she can’t change the past or bring the child back to life. She must learn to accept death for what it is and continue with her life, Irvine puts it this way, “But to dwell on that death is a waste of time and emotions, inasmuch as the past cannot be changed. Dwelling on the child’s death will, therefore, cause the woman needless grief (104).
Marcus was also very sickly, According to McLynn, he continuously talked about pain in his “Meditations”, it is possible that he could’ve suffered from stomach ulcers, tuberculosis or some form of blood disease. As a dedicated Stoic that he refused to pamper himself and let his diminishing health get the upper hand on him. He didn’t believe in stopping his way of life because of a sickness or pain, he endured and continued. Instead, he continued to thank the gods for allowing him to live longer than he expected to. However, some aspects of his health became very controversial. Many people didn’t agree with the fact that he used the drug theriac to relieve his pain. Theriac was a very expensive medication and included ingredients such as the flesh of animals and viper
Above all, Marcus was very humble, we see this because he didn’t want anyone who worked for him to do things in a high-handed fashion, rather he wanted them to do it in a respectful manner, considering the rights and feelings of others. Although he was very wealthy and had the power to be overbearing, he wasn’t enticed when given opportunities to increase his wealth and power. Instead, he passed down his legacies to his next kin and treated everyone with an equal amount of respect no matter what their status was. He lived a very thrifty and careful life, just as he did before he became wealthy, and he continued to live by the principles his father taught him.
Not only was Marcus persistent about studying philosophy and stoicism, but he was also determined to put in to practice what he learned and change habits of daily living. As Frank further explains, “He writes not to discover anything new but to remind himself to put into practice what he has learned. His constant message is: this is what you need to remember if you are serious about wanting to live as humans have the capacity to live and are supposed to live” (36) He also influenced other writers, who refer back to his writings to decide how they should be living their lives. So, he serves as a role model to a lot of people who want to imitate his way of living and his principles.
Marcus was very generous with his money. He frequently gave out money and donated it to various people. He even gave his sister a larger share of the family estate, than she was intended to have. Even though some thought what he was doing was too good to be true, and he was “putting on an act”, or hiding who he truly was, he didn’t allow it to prevent him from continuing in his way of life. This shows how he was unmoved even when people didn’t like what he was doing, he was convinced that it was the right way to live.
He also tells us not to be judgmental of ourselves, or others. See everyone for what they truly are, mere dust. Also, do not let anyone define who you are, and do not compare yourselves to others as if that is what you should be. The world is constantly trying to sell us, what’s considered to be the ideal person. However, Marcus reminds us that we aren’t meant to be customers to the world, but we were placed here to be humans. Frank further explains this way, “To be human, act with generosity that is content with what it can do—not paralyzed by what is too much for any one person to do, and not forgetting what can be done” (140).
Not only was he generous but he also believed that material things weren’t necessary to live a fulfilling life, especially very expensive things that served no real purpose. He analyzed certain things and broke them down to reality. These included things that humans desire such as expensive homes, clothes, sex, etc. He exposed them for what they really are, overrated. In Stephen’s words, “He rejects the notion that fancy food, fancy drink, fancy clothes, sexual activity, or sex appeal are weighty, important things to be proud of. All such things are actually worthless junk” (88). Allowing such things to guide our lives would be a waste of time. It would be more efficient to think about positive things that will please the gods.
We often try to get acceptance from others, by wearing nice clothes, driving expensive clothing, having the nicest home and so forth. However, this brings on anxiety, “ear that we will make the wrong choices and that other people will, therefore, think poorly of us” ( Irvine 128) In order to afford all of these, we have to work more. Most of our time is spent trying to please others, which is exactly what Stoics, like Marcus, disagreed with. They believed that this type of mindset, of consistently graving the love and acceptance of others, disrupts our tranquility. So, to avoid this, we must live simpler lives, and living in harmony with what makes us a better person, not what others think we should be.
However, by this, they did not believe we should avoid all other humans. Instead, they believed God created us to do our “duty” as humans. Irvine emphasizes that “What we will discover is that we were designed to live among other people and interact with them in a manner that is mutually advantageous…” (129). Nothing should stop us from doing our duty as humans. Even while indolently lying in bed, we should tell ourselves to get up and continue to do what we were meant to do. He further adds that human nature is like bees, we can’t live completely alone. Although, this is possible it leads to social and mental issues. We are meant to be in the company of others, although they may do things we disagree with.
Doing our duty as humans was very important to Marcus, as well as other Stoics because they believed that by doing so, they would be in favor of the gods and live happy lives. He says, “we will enjoy “a man’s true delight” (Irvine 132). However, the social part of this duty, which involved working with other fellow humans was most important to Marcus, because he believed that doing so, would help him to live an even better life. Although he had to interact with various types of people, he didn’t have to befriend them to do his social duty, “avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, for fear that their values will contaminate ours” (Irvine 135). Instead, he focused on building friendships with people who shared his same values, this way they could continue to live in a way that was pleasing to the gods and avoid being “contaminated” or being persuaded to act like other people instead of themselves.
Marcus didn’t believe that people couldn’t do certain things that were conformable to their nature. He believed that anyone could do anything they put their mind to and nothing is off limits. He explains it this way, “If a thing is difficult to be accomplished by thyself, do not think that it is impossible for man: but if anything is possible for a man and conformable to his nature, think that this can be attained by thyself too” (Aurelius 53). He also, wants people to support people closest to them. Most people praise people they have never met or seen before, but when someone close to them, that they know well has accomplished something, they show little to no support. To Marcus this was very strange behavior, “They will not praise those who are living at the same time and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen nor ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if thou shouldn’t be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee” (Aurelius 52).
Additionally, Marcus had self-awareness. Meaning, he was aware of his imperfections that he could control, such as anger. He knew he had anger issues, so he worked hard to overcome them. “…the Meditations are full of reminders to himself never to indulge his propensity for ire and rage. ‘Anger,’ he wrote, ‘is just as much a weakness as abandoning life’s struggle” (McLynn 104). He was committed to the truth, even when it came to himself. We know this because he opened everything, even simple things, broke them down, to what they really were. He also expressed how he hated liars and lying. He stressed straight-forwardness, integrity, and simplicity in his writings.
On March 17th, of the year 180, Marcus passed away, at the age of fifty-eight. He was severely ill and refused to eat or drink, to hurry his death. Many people were heartbroken, “His death provoked an outburst of public grief. His soldiers, in particular, were deeply moved by his passing” (Irvine 60). This shows that he was loved by many people. Although he lived by principles and Stoic virtues that many people insulted and criticized him for, they came to appreciate him for this, and for what he really was, a good emperor.
Above all things, Marcus wanted truth. He didn’t want money or fame. He didn’t care about being accepted by people, he lived to please the gods alone. In McLynn’s words, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not, and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board” (566). Honestly is one thing that defined a good man in his eyes. A good man would be a man who is strong, and not easily swayed by temptations and mere imperfections that plague humankind, a man who handles his responsibilities, a man who isn’t greedy for money, but rejoices in giving to others, a man who is humble, and doesn’t brag, a man who remains true to himself, and a man who expresses genuine self-awareness. All of these are qualities Marcus Aurelius had and worked to gain and are what he believed defined “A good man”.