Marcus Aurelius: 20 Life Lessons From The Emperor Of Rome Himself

Philosophy has been popularized as something learnt in a college from a 2000 page textbook where you try to find meaning of life itself.

As Ryan Holiday jokes, philosophy is not just limited to academia where people in turtleneck t-shirts ask difficult questions about life, rather philosophy is the practical guide to living life.

Many people think philosophy is something that you have once you have become successful in your life. They could not be more wrong.

Look at the masters like Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, they never got a philosophy degree in their life and yet they are given the ranks of the great philosophers. 

Shah Rukh Khan, one of the greatest actors India has ever seen is famously quoted with the line: “Don’t become a philosopher before you become rich” 

Well in my opinion, that advice is simply wrong. Now of course, I am not even nearly successful as Shah Rukh Khan, but I know a faulty advice when I see one. 

You see, philosophy is a set of rules we choose to live our lives by, successful or not, rich or not.

Successful people have their own philosophy to life, with which they stick by throughout. That is why they are successful and not the other way round.

Let’s take the example of Shah Rukh Khan himself. 

Once he had seen poverty closely, and tasted success through extreme amounts of hard work he got a clear picture on what he wanted in his life and the direction he wanted his life to follow. So, he decided a path for his life.

Every step he took had to be in that very direction. In short, he had a philosophy that revolved around the fact that being poor is bad. He never wanted to go back to poverty. 

Living up to that one rule that he had constructed on his own for himself, was his philosophy about for HIS life.

This (philosophy) has been quoted as the biggest motivation of Shah Rukh Khan’s life by none other than he himself.  

We are an evolved species because we have a philosophy on life. Even animals have a philosophy in their lives. What makes us Humans different is that we can choose our own philosophy, construct and edit it as we experience situations in our lives. 

This gives us immense power over not just our own emotions and momentum but also on the events that can happen around us. It gives us power over events and situations that would simply be out of our control. 

Vegans have a philosophy towards animal love, academicians have a philosophy towards knowledge, Maria Popova has a philosophy about consuming interesting art and sharing it with her millions of readers, Elon Musk has a strong philosophy revolving around evolving the human race and so forth. 

So, in this article I took apart the meditations or set of rules that the Emperor Of Rome from 161-180 A.D. used to live by. This guy, none other than Marcus Aurelius, has been treated as one of the key figures in stoic philosophy as well as the history of the world as we know it. 

Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the last good emperors of Rome under whose rule Rome flourished. After him the downfall of the empire started. 

Marcus Aurelius On A Coin From 166 A.D.

Marcus chose mornings to write his meditations, not for publication but for himself. It has been discussed at a lot of places that this compilation of meditations were more or less his own journal for himself and the lessons he was learning as he was living as the most powerful man on Earth. 

For all of you who might be unaware of stoic philosophy, it is a way of living life where we take events as they are. The aim is to remove the negative and positive connotations from them.

If you are a Game Of Thrones fan, in the last season, have a look at when Baelish gives advice to Sansa Stark about warfare.

He says something along the lines of “Every fight must be fought at the same time. Imagine you are being attacked by everyone from all directions at all times. Prepare yourself mentally for that situation so when it really occurs, it does not have the element of surprise anymore”

Well, that sounds a lot like stoicism, doesn’t it?
The aim of this article is to give you a few key set of ideas that might make you think a bit deeper on what you want to do in your life and give you a sense of control and direction.

 I have laid out my interpretations of these various phrases by Marcus Aurelius, in his journal: Meditations. If you have a different interpretation on either of these, I would love to hear about them in the comments below.

1. Through not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.

We must be at peace with ourselves. The aim is to have a deep understanding of ourselves through experience and deliberate practice.

If we do not put in the time to become familiar with ourselves and who we are, we will never be able to find a true sense of happiness. We can always be happy when we do not know what others are thinking, however, if we are not sure about what we truly want in our lives, we can never be happy. 

I see and meet a lot of people my age, people who would otherwise be extremely happy with what they are doing but for some reason cannot seem to get the much needed peace of mind. They are either thinking about leaving their current job or have already left it and feel empty inside.

This situation occurs with people who either have not listened to who they are, have not paid close attention to their child like spirit and taken steps to nurture that spirit and take action upon what it wants or people who listened to it but ignored it and went along the masses.

It becomes extremely important today to listen to your heart and know that most career choices which would have been laughed upon 10 years ago, offer millions of dollars. For example, being a gamer, being a YouTuber.

Be in tune with yourself, the voice inside you and try and resonate your life according to it and not the other way round. I have kept this point at number one, because I believe mindset is the key. Self awareness is one of the most powerful assets we can have in our lives.

So I push you towards spending some time alone. After the lockdown is lifted go for a coffee on your own, deal with the stupid stares and the pity the waiter shows you when they see you’re having coffee alone. Have some fun and discover yourself and your thoughts.

Try to figure out who you are, take a deep dive into your own heart and mind. See what drives you, see what keeps you down. Just by knowing these things we can improve our choices in our lives by leaps and bounds and move a step closer towards happiness.

2. Let no act be done without a purpose, nor otherwise than according to the perfect principles of art.

Every single action we take, be it in our career, relationships, business, health or any other subject, there always needs to be a higher purpose. 

In the past 5 years of studying all these successful people, picking their brains and being able to work with some of them them I have seen this common trait occur again and again. They not only take actions with purpose, but walk, talk and live with purpose. 

People like Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, Neil Strauss have made systems in their life which allow them to do everything with a purpose.

For example, the best selling author Neil Strauss has automated his lunch delivery for everyday so he does not have to waste time in deciding what to eat.

He uses an app while writing, that locks his computer on one single screen(the word processor he uses) until he writes a specific number of words.

He is able to use that time and brainpower to do something that he is the best at. 


Yes, we have to be sure of what we want in our lives and what our purpose is, which the previous meditation will help you achieve. 

It is not just about knowing our passion in life. Maybe, I want a better job, or a raise. So, all the actions that I take during my day should point me towards getting a better job or a raise.

Every single thing I do, person I help, things I learn should put me one step closer to my virtues and my ultimate goal. That is why understanding ourselves, and knowing our goals is highly important in life. They help us figure out what needs to be done everyday.

Everything we do, has to be done with a greater sense of purpose.

3. Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.

If I manage to remove my opinion on how a certain something should have been done, I will be left with nothing to complain about. Sometimes we believe that there is only one way to do something, and when people tend to not follow that line of progression it takes a mental toll on us.

When these do not get followed we naturally complain and destroy our own sense of composure. 
And when we remove the expectation that everyone will behave according to how we want them to, we end up not complaining about things at all.

Once we do that, everything that happens around us, has no effect on us. That brings for us the ultimate peace of mind where we can think inwards, work on our inner self, figure ourselves and our true purpose out and in turn achieve real mastery.

Just by removing the predisposed opinion on events happening around us we remove the ability of that event to negatively affect us in the long haul. 

I want to give you an example here just to make it clear in case the words above felt a bit abstract: Let’s say I believe everyone should shun offline marketing channels and take up online marketing channels.

When someone I know does not do that, I get angry and complain. And that harms my mental state, even though it has nothing to do with my life or business.

All I have to do to make the situation better, or make it impossible to occur, is to remove my opinion on offline advertising. Now, I do not want to remove that opinion, well, I don’t have to completely terminate it.

I just remove my opinion from other people’s actions. If I hate offline advertising, I won’t use it. I cannot expect everyone to do the same. Once I take a note of this fact, everything that happens around me is just an event. 

The negative connotation to that event is automatically removed from the equation.

4.  Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.

When people talk about dying, or death we say that the whole thing is a bit morbid. However, there are so many successful people who are motivated by death.

It is much less about death and much more about us realizing that our time on this planet is very limited. So, the question to you is are you doing enough good for other people that when you die you will be remembered?

And by that I do not even mean being remembered by millions of people. Even a 100 people? 
Those are a 100 human beings whose lives as well as their family’s lives would have been blessed by something that you did.

That, now is a huge accomplishment. Much bigger than most of us would ever do in our lifetimes.

Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius

MEMENTO MORI: a saying that reminds us of being mortals. One day we are going to turn to dust, but what we do before that one day comes makes us who we are. 

Marcus Aurelius made great choices. He felt great and proud of himself of not raping slaves, not treating people with disdain and bringing unnecessary harm to the ones around him, yes even the ones in his family who conspired against him. 

Imagine, the most powerful man on Earth, who can do whatever he wants going against what other powerful men did at those times(rape, drink and go crazy) choosing not to do anything like that and bring no harm to the slaves around him. 

Now that is a great decision.

5. Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

This quote is something that piques my interest. 

I have lived by this quote indirectly.

It has a deeper meaning behind it. 

We tend to rely on our past accomplishments and become complacent. However, in the real world, these accomplishments do not last long. Same is the case with negative stuff.

So if you are doing something good, you have to do something good everyday. 

If you are facing criticism and pushback from haters, well, it too will last for a very small period of time.

Keep moving forward.

6. About what am I now employing my own soul? On every occasion I must ask myself this question, and inquire, What have I now in this part of me which they call the ruling principle? and whose soul have I now,—that of a child, or of a young man, or of a feeble woman, or of a tyrant, or of a domestic animal, or of a wild beast?

Well, this one took me quite some time to get my head around. I had to push myself quite a bit to really understand this one and translate this to normal people English.

The gist is simple. He talks about having a different viewpoints for different situations that occur in life. Just by having a different viewpoint or in other words getting into different shoes each time a different situation strikes we use all of our potential or soul.

As Ramit Sethi says we all have lenses we view the world by. Now, how willing are you to just for the moment put on another pair of glasses and see the situation as someone else might see it from.

This would require a huge deal of empathy towards others, and that is what makes it difficult.

We must strive towards using as much of our brain as often as possible for as many situations as we can.

Napoleon Bonaparte was a master of this form of thinking. He went against the popular belief of having a big army to invade. 

In a lot of his battles, he would March in with an outnumbered ratio of 1 to 2 or even 1 to 3. This would give him the flexibility to move at double speed than the enemy and steer the direction of the battle itself. 

This kind of warfare also gave him the ability to find ways to attack the enemy that they would not expect. Napoleon had to be flexible in envisioning various scenarios and employ totally different ways to move in on the enemy forces. 

This gave him the ability to really step into the shoes of the other person and think on what they might be planning with the information and the size of the army they had they had. 

It simply showed him that the other person because of the sheer size of the army isn’t going to be able to out maneuver him quickly.

He also employed the fact that if he is able to scare off a chunk of opponent’s army, the whole formation would disintegrate leaving an opening for his small yet flexible squadron to mount a surprise attack.

Now, I believe this type of thinking is not uncommon and it should definitely be cultivated.

 7. It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.

Situations or circumstances are not alive. They do not carry a very specific instruction sheet with them on how we should act.

We carry a manual on how we react to situations and happenings in our lives. Normally this manual that we carry is built upon the past experiences we have had in our lives.

A true stoic however, studies the past experiences in a neutral light and takes notes from them. 

We have an initial emotional response to those events and the lessons learnt that hinders our future experience. 

Guess what, manuals can be edited, rewritten and reprinted whenever we want.

The aim is to not let a situation affect us in a way that negatively affects our life or our state of mind. 
A situation is just a situation, neither negative nor positive.

It just is.

8. Accustom thyself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.

Hearing is different than listening. All we have to do is be present in the moment and really hone in on what the person is saying.

By doing this we can step into their shoes and watch the world with a totally different perspective.
It is great to see the different parts of the world with your perspective but even better is to see one part of the world with hundreds of different perspectives.

A lot of people I meet ask me why I read so many books or what is this obsession with consuming so much information. Well, all that reading and constant learning gives me a different set of eyes to look at the world from. 

By being able to look at the world from someone else’s reality I can not only learn what not to do but it also teaches me about human beings in general and how we make decisions, and that in turn places the power in my hand. 

9. To the jaundiced honey tastes bitter, and to those bitten by mad dogs water causes fear; and to little children the ball is a fine thing. Why then am I angry? Dost thou think that a false opinion has less power than the bile in the jaundiced or the poison in him who is bitten by a mad dog?

Having an opinion is natural for human beings. However, having an opinion that clouds our judgement is not.

The world can be seen through many different lenses and everyone views the world in their own way. Now, it is not necessary that you like what I like and you hate what I hate. 

So, having our own opinion is great but trying to impose it over someone else or the situations around us causes nothing but a mish mash of the events we do not want or like.

What Marcus Aurelius says is simple, having a false opinion on something is more dangerous than anything else. He pushes us to educate ourselves before we make our decisions based on half knowledge or stuff that we just heard from someone without credibility.

It might take us an extra minute or two to verify the statement before we make it public, and those extra minutes are going to be worth it because the scenario on the other end could even make us lose everything we have.

Robert Greene talks about this in his book 33 strategies of war as well. Never trust information from one single source. It could be that the person is trying to betray us or laying a plot for some future action.

Any information before being acted upon should be verified through multiple sources and then carefully thought upon before taking the final step. This once again, gives us power over people around us.

10. Be not ashamed to be helped; for it is thy business to do thy duty like a soldier in the assault on a town. How then, if being lame thou canst not mount up on the battlements alone, but with the help of another it is possible?

Okay, I am going to pivot a bit from the example Marcus Aurelius gives. Of course it is an apt example for the time he lived in. It was a time without internet, phones or anything else.

People wanted real power, power to dominate the planet and rule over everyone else.

Marcus Aurelius lived in a time where conspiracies were common, overthrowing emperors was what revolting people used to plan in the darkness of the night. He lived in a time where family conspired against family.

His own daughter, Lucilla conspired to have her brother(Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus) assassinated.

Those were some interesting times. However, a lot of this advice as with stoicism in general is quite practically applicable in this century.

Let’s talk about the so called ‘self made millionaires’. Are they really, ‘SELF MADE’?

Yes they are self made, only if we ignore the part following people might have played negatively or positively in their lives into shaping these so called ‘SELF MADE’ millionaires.

Parents, Friends, Family Members, Co-Workers, Random people they met, People whose interviews, documentaries, movies that inspired these millionaires, their employees, government, politics and let’s not forget a lot of times their pets to keep their sanity in place.

Humans are a collaborative species, we need help of each other to sustain the species and live for years to come. 

Just imagine if you were the only human being on the planet. Not to mention the insanity it would cause, but think of what you would not be able to do without anyone around. 

11. Be thou erect, or be made erect

HaHa. This one always gets me to giggle.

Are you with me? Yea, let’s move forward.

So, what Marcus Aurelius says in this simple yet extremely applicable quote is that sometimes we need to be flexible. Even though he uses the exact opposite word of flexible. 

If you’re a fan of Bruce Lee, you might have watched his video where he says ‘be like water my friend’ 

Water takes the shape of the container it is poured in. Water adapts to what is expected of it and in the long run even destroys huge rocks that stand in its way.

Then we also have Conficius who talks about the fact that a strong bamboo is the one that bends along with the wind. That is the bamboo or the green reed which survives the storm.

12. To the rational animal the same act is according to nature and according to reason.

So, this one took some time for me to contemplate and work upon.

Human beings are rational animals. It means that we think before we act and we have set rules we act upon. This means we human beings are not expected to be reactive but to be proactive in what we do.

Any situation or scenario needs thinking before doing, and in consistently doing something like this we develop a habit of following virtues in our lives. These virtues then become our second nature.

As we apply this logic and reasons more and more to our daily life these become our truth. So we need to consciously develop our nature in a way that makes us balance and think before we take certain actions.

With enough deliberate practice, this virtue then also becomes automatic and ingrained into who we are. 

13. Life must be reaped like the ripe ears of corn. One man is born; another dies.

There are a lot of moments in our lives which make us change who we are.

It is in our power if we let these moments become either big or small. If I want I could learn something new every hour of the day and change who I am every single hour.

But I will have to kill who I was an hour ago and a new ME will be born. Life then is a series of births and rebirths where we constantly improve and reinvent ourselves in order to grow and become a better human being.

Charles Darwin, had quite an experience with nature and recognizing species within England and he already knew quite a bit about nature at that point. However, once he reached the island of Galapagos, he realized there were thousands of new species, alive and dead which he knew nothing about. 

If at that moment, he would have not thought wow, there is so much I don’t know about, he might have never collected the samples that then he worked upon throughout his life and we would have never seen the evolution theory.

So, he had to kill the old Charles Darwin and a new Charles Darwin was born who had more excitement, more awe about nature and even more so curious about what lies beyond that he had seen in England.

14. Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.

All human beings are made up of the same framework. The building block for each one of us is the same.

The atom, the cells, the body systems, the skeleton. We are all same from the inside. 

However, our mind and the way we use it makes us totally different from each other.

If need be we can always reach deep down inside and get to our core where we all have that touch of human-ness. We all know what the right thing is and all we have to do is look on the inside and act on what our heart says.

15. On the occasion of every act ask thyself, How is this with respect to me? Shall I repent of it? A little time and I am dead, and all is gone. What more do I seek, if what I am now doing is the work of an intelligent living being, and a social being, and one who is under the same law with God?

Marcus Aurelius, wrote these thoughts out for himself every morning.

He; the most powerful man on earth at that time wrote to himself that if he ever has a difficult decision to make, all he has to do is ask himself of certain things before taking the next step on it.

We must ask ourselves “if this action that I am about to undertake complies with my belief set or not?” 

Will it make the world a better place and my name and legacy a good one after I am dead? 

Is the action that I am about take, will I be able to say that I made an intelligent decision here after I am dead? 

16. Thou hast not leisure [or ability] to read. But thou hast leisure [or ability] to check arrogance: thou hast leisure to be superior to pleasure and pain: thou hast leisure to be superior to love of fame, and not to be vexed at stupid and ungrateful people, nay even to care for them.

Even if you are not as educated as a doctor, or a lawyer you still have the ability to check your actions. 

You still have the ability to detach yourself from the current situation and look at it as it is. 
Something I learnt from stoicism and Ryan Holiday: situations are not negative or positive, situations are just situations.

You have the ability to detach yourself from the greed of fame, and to detach yourself from the comments and actions of people who do not want your betterment. 

There are going to be all types of situations and people in your life, and a lot of ungrateful people but you can still take charge and detach yourself from those people and their deeds.  

17. Everything exists for some end,—a horse, a vine. Why dost thou wonder? Even the sun will say, I am for some purpose, and the rest of the gods will say the same. For what purpose then art thou,—to enjoy pleasure? See if common sense allows this.

A big idea that all the stoic followed was of fate. 

AMOR FATI, which translate to love of fate. They believed that everything exists for some or the other reason. 

Every single thing, every single situation that occurs. From horses to grapes to the sun, has a purpose to fulfill. 

Even the situations that are not in our favor have something to tell us, something to teach us. The stoics had a way of looking for neutrality in every situation and every occurrence around them. 

What is your fate going to be? What purpose are you fulfilling by being on Earth? Are you just existing for pleasure, or are you here to serve a higher calling, serve your true purpose on the planet.

18. Receive [wealth or prosperity] without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.

If there is one thing I have seen in all the successful people that I have studied over the last 6 years is that they all are extremely humble and have a student mindset. 

The most successful people I have met have often times just taken out their notepad and started taking notes while talking to me which seems to amaze me every time since these guys have amazingly successful businesses and amassed superb wealth.

Surely they know more than me, however they always seem to grind one or two lessons in each conversation and are very humble about it. 

Humility is our friend and ego is our enemy

Seneca was one of the richest people in Rome, an advisor to Emperor Nero, and a celebrated playwright in Rome. He had this monthly practice of taking 24 hours every month and acting as if he was poor. 

He wood dress shabby, live on measly food exactly like a homeless person. 

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared? – Seneca

We all tend to underestimate our future misery and are never prepared for tough times. 

This is an amazing lesson to learn from the stoics. Be humble when on your way to top and be ready to lose it all if it ever happens. 

19. To-day I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions.

Ryan Holiday was a talking about a situation he sometimes finds himself in where he is getting frustrated and says to his wife ‘you’re frustrating me’ and she says, I cannot frustrate you. 
Only YOU can frustrate you.

Situations are situations, neither negative nor positive. Be an observer and not a participant and you will see the world as it is, and you will see how to make decisions without being affected by them. 
It’s all in our own control. 

20. No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.

Bla Bla Bla Bla, Bla Bla. 

That is how most of us are. Bla, Bla, Bla and on and on.

In this world of social media we tend to show the flashy parts of our lives, rent a Lamborghini for social media posts and on and on. 

All we need to do is walk the talk. Put our money where our mouth is. 

It is easy to blabber about how things need to be done, or how you can do it better, but what takes real courage is actually taking up the charge and doing them. 


One thought on “Marcus Aurelius: 20 Life Lessons From The Emperor Of Rome Himself

  1. I loved reading the Meditations. It’s a short book but it takes a lot of time to read, especially as every verse has something insightful to ponder upon. As for the Shah Rukh Khan comment, I can see where he comes from on this angle. Once you study philosophy, it’s hard to see why wealth, position, and power become so important. This is especially in the case that when we die, all manners of politics and drama become very petty.

    Of course, we need to eat so there is that. I also recommend Epictetus if you are interested in Stoic philosophy as well. The Enchiridion as a book is less than 2mm thick but is also has a lot of profound advice.


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