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Why Marcus Aurelius Matters, in 5 of His Classic Quotes

Marcus Aurelius statue
This status of Marcus Aurelius stands on Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy. Jupiterimages/Getty Images

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Marcus Aurelius (121 to 180 C.E.) never meant for his "Meditations" to be published, let alone read and quoted by truth-seekers for millennia. The slim volume captures the private thoughts of an ancient Roman emperor and dedicated student of Stoic philosophy as he led armies to battle against barbarian invaders and watched millions of his subjects die from a plague of smallpox.

Written nearly 2,000 years ago, "Meditations" resonates so deeply with modern readers because Marcus Aurelius proffered answers to some of life's biggest questions — how to be a good person, how to deal with adversity, and how to rein in emotions and focus on what really matters — and he does it with short, easily digestible, highly quotable nuggets of Stoic wisdom.

"Stoicism from its very beginning is designed to be a philosophy to be lived, not just studied," says William O. Stephens, philosophy professor at Creighton University and author of "Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed." "Meditations is intended to be a practical guide. And the kinds of challenges that Marcus faced in Ancient Rome are not all that far removed from the human circumstances and challenge that we face today, including 'the plague.'"

Here is Stephens' take on five potentially life-altering pieces of advice from Marcus Aurelius:

1. "Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself."

A central tenet of Stoicism is that you can only control yourself — your own actions and reactions — not outside circumstances or other people. In the same vein, you can't judge other people's actions as "good" or "evil," because you don't know their motivations.

"Stoics believe that other people act in accordance with what they judge to be good for themselves at the time," says Stephens. "Maybe they've been betrayed by a friend or are worried about a sick relative, so they're distracted about what they should be focused on."

Even when people act in ignorance and those actions hurt you, it doesn't make sense to think the worst of other people, because ultimately you don't know their hearts and minds. Instead of holding up a mirror to other people to show them their faults and vices, turn inward and reflect on your own thoughts and actions.

"In your own reactions, be strict," says Stephens. "Exercise Stoic virtues like patience, understanding, and cooperativeness, and flex them every day like they're muscles. Focus on your errors and think about correcting them. Count on yourself and love other people."

Bonus quote: "It's silly to try to escape other people's faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own."

2. "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

From the Stoic point of view, the existence of adversity or "impediments" to our success and happiness should not be seen as hardships, but as challenges. Even the events and conditions that seem objectively "bad" — divorce, financial failure, illness, death — are not in themselves "evil." They are part of an interconnected whole, a living cosmos that is directed by divine providence.

"Impediments are just raw material that the cosmos is providing you and giving you the opportunity to rework and transform by activating your own resources: your mind, intelligence and reason," says Stephens.

Marcus Aurelius knew adversity intimately. Of his 13 children with his wife Faustina, only three lived into adulthood, says Stephens. He never aspired to be emperor, but ruled over a vast domain constantly under attack internally and externally. The thoughts recorded in "Meditations" weren't outward advice, but self-directed reminders of how to use his own adversity and loss as fuel for self-transformation.

One of the most poignant allegories in "Meditations" for grit in the face of adversity is that of an unquenchable fire. A roaring fire doesn't care what you throw at it — perfectly aged pine logs or a rotten and soggy limb.

"The fire takes whatever fuel you throw into it and grows stronger," says Stephens.

Bonus quote: "It's unfortunate that this has happened. No. It's fortunate that this has happened and I've remained unharmed by it."

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

For a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius, there is a sense of urgency to life. Your one and only task is to become the most virtuous person you can be — more wise, courageous, just, friendly and self-controlled — and that self-improvement project is going to require decades of work.

"Putting off that moral project until tomorrow is nothing but laziness and self-delusion," says Stephens. "You have to practice and apply these virtues every single day if you're going to make progress. You can't become virtuous overnight."

Bonus quote: "It's a disgrace in this life when the soul surrenders first while the body refuses to."

4. "You shouldn't give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don't care at all."

For Stoics, emotions are not some outside force that "happens" to you. Something can't "make you sad" or "make you angry." Instead, emotions are a choice. When someone provokes you or tries to hurt you, you can choose to feel angry. Or you can do as the Stoics teach and choose calm rationality.

In "Meditations," Marcus Aurelius uses the example of someone insulting you and criticizing your behavior. For a Stoic, there are only two possible responses to this. First, you need to dispassionately examine if what they say is true or false. If it's true, says Stephens, then you should actually thank your insulter and urgently get on with fixing your flaw.

"If it's false and you know that it's false, then what's there to get upset about?" asks Stephens. "In neither case is it rational to respond with anger. That's the kind of cognitive therapy that a Stoic applies to insults."

Bonus quote: "The best revenge is not to be like your enemy."

5. "Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn't matter."

Marcus Aurelius was the last of what are known as the "Five Good Emperors" of the Roman Empire. He oversaw a far-flung state encompassing 75 million people stretching from Egypt to England. If you think your to-do list is long, imagine his!

As with all of us, Marcus Aurelius had to decide every day how to spend his limited energies, time and attention. And as a Stoic, he tried to remind himself what he could realistically control and what he could not, what was virtuous and what was trivial.

"What you can control are your own beliefs, judgements, and your own intention and goals," says Stephens. "These you take complete responsibility for. You don't have the power to transform the moral character of other people, but your moral progress is entirely up to you."

Bonus quote: "It's all in how you perceive it. You're in control. You can dispense with misperception at will, like rounding the point."

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