You might take one look at Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and feel your fight-or-flight response kick in. After all, the work is ancient philosophy (170-180 CE) written by yet another dead white guy trying to tell you how to live your life.
But don't get too judgy right off the bat. Marcus Aurelius isn't your average Roman emperor. He came to power through a series of family tragedies that left him without a father and two other emperors (Hadrian and Antoninus Pius) without heirs.
By the way, Marcus is totally the emperor in Gladiator played by Richard Harris. Why wouldn't you want to read this guy's book?
As a boy, Marcus was trained in Stoicism, a philosophy that encourages self-restraint, harsh reality-checking, and a strong sense of civic responsibility. Marcus was no posh emperor. He learned from an early age to love rough living and to refuse to indulge in anything for pleasure or comfort. In his writings, he warns himself not to give in to the temptations of his privilege, because doing so might turn him into something he doesn't recognize.
Even his Meditations were never meant to bring lasting fame or gain him any followers. Basically, he was just writing for himself. It's only after his death that his diaries became known and read all over the world.
Marcus's love for philosophical principles makes him an unusual emperor, especially after crazies like Caligula and Nero. They chopped off heads and burned Christians; he… well, he kind of did some of that, too, but he was more into figuring out how to be a good dude. He wrote his Meditations at various times during his reign—sometimes even from the front lines, where he was fighting to keep the empire together.
It's a weird way to be a philosopher, maybe, but it's cool, because we get to see someone trying to find a balance between philosophizing and just living his life. Marcus's principles may seem kind of at odds with the stuff he's doing at his day job, but when he sits down to write in his journal, he reminds himself of the importance of virtues like tolerance, kindness, self-restraint, and humility.
While he acknowledges with some pain that he'll never be a full-time philosopher with lasting fame (irony of ironies), Marcus understands that he can still be a good person if he lives according to principles. For him, of course, as for all of us, that's more easily said than done. If you read between the lines, you'll see a hard struggle taking place right there on the page. That's Marcus the Emperor grappling with his fate right before you, thousands of years away.
If you've ever walked into a guidance counselor's office and seen one of those motivational posters ("Success: It's All In Your Mind!"—you know the drill), you've already made first contact with Marcus Aurelius. Even Shakespeare seems to have been infected by Marcus's thinking on the power of the mind, for example when he has Hamlet declare that "...there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (II.2).
But beware. As with most spoken or written work, sound-biting the Meditations makes it pretty easy to just totally miss the complex whole of Marcus's philosophy. This guy's take on life is holistic, not just pithy. He spent a lot of time thinking about the universe and his place in it.
His advice to himself is not just useful and wise; it's a portal to another life for anyone reading it. Marcus is all about tackling the big questions—death, relationships, family—while always keeping it real. This guy was the Emperor of Rome, so he had serious stuff to do at his day job. He didn't have time for empty navel-gazing; he needed philosophy that actually made sense, in the present, for someone living an active life.
Here's a philosopher who's not gonna pull any punches or talk down to you, folks. Give him a shot; he's probably got at least a few useful things to tell you.
A Brief History of Stoicism
Not quite sure who Zeno was, or how he influenced other philosophers? Check out this site, which will help you navigate the ins and outs of ancient Greek philosophy.
The Emperor's Life and Times
Everything you wanted to know about Marcus Aurelius, wrapped up in a deliciously bite-sized website.
A Crumbling Giant
A gigantic statue of Marcus Aurelius was found in the rubble of a bathhouse in Turkey. It's considered one of the finest likenesses ever made of the emperor—but it's also in pieces. Somehow, we think Marcus would be gratified by this.
The Emperor Finds a Home
Back in the 80s, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome was on the verge of breaking down into its component parts when it was saved by conservation. But it took the better part of two decades—and a good fight—to find the emperor a permanent home. So much for being forgotten by posterity, Marcus.
Marcus Meets Silicon Valley
A young writer and student of Stoicism finds a way to package the Meditations for a modern audience.
That's an oxymoron if we've ever heard one, but apparently the Stoic shunning of stuff is teaching a whole new generation the meaning of happiness.
Plato Meets TED
Brush up on your Plato in under five minutes with this helpful video. Marcus plays with Plato's idea that reality is veiled.
This Talk of the Nation interview with a diverse panel of speakers brings some exciting news: the classics are back and in higher demand in educational institutions more than ever.
On His High Horse
Get a look at the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which has just found a new home in Rome after being moved from its previous location on the Capitoline Hill.
Louvre That Emperor
Take a look at this particularly handsome marble bust of Marcus, commissioned by his daughter Lucilla.