Becoming a Stoic: Philosophy for Everyday Life

Lucy Clark

Imagine yourself as a great Roman Emperor, triumphantly carrying your Empire through what historians often call “the golden age” of Rome. You are a courageous and bold leader, ruthlessly conquering one empire after another. Then, in the midst of your victories, terrible darknesses emerge: a lethal plague strikes your nation. Your people fall ill — up to 2,000 citizens confront death each day, one of whom is your dear brother (Hamen, 16). Heart wrenched, you stand alone and afraid as you witness your once-unstoppable nation begin to collapse. What is your job as a leader? How must you cope with such unimaginable grief?

This hypothetical situation was not so hypothetical centuries ago. In the second century A.D., Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire, was presented with one of Ancient Rome’s greatest challenges: the Antonine Plague. The plague was both incredibly contagious and lethal. At the end of its peak, historians gather that around ⅓ of the entire Roman population perished. Aurelius himself almost faced death as his brother co-emperor Lucius Verus contracted the illness and tragically perished in the midst of their reign. Deeply afflicted by the adversities that challenged his nation, Aurelius struggled with how to overcome this crisis and guide his people forward. Little did he know that his strength lay in his mindset. 

Illustration of the Antonine Plague (Image 1)

With his educational background, Aurelius found himself reverting back to his philosophical roots. Eventually, he landed upon Stoicism: a Hellenistic philosophy surrounding practical ethics. The goals of Stoicism require one to “live in accordance with nature” (Baltzly). In other words, Stoicism involves channeling one’s energy deliberately towards things that one can control. Through balance, intentionality, and rational decision-making, a Stoic is met with success. Stoic teachings prompted Aurelius to internalize that while he wasn’t able to end the plague, he was, however, capable of leading his country through tragedy and aiding the plight of his people. By redirecting his focus and recentering his values, Aurelius was able to effectively guide his people through tragedy. 

To document his words and reflect on his self-growth, Aurelius kept a journal. He filled its pages with the daily wisdom and inspirations he came across, taking note of times of both setbacks and success. One of his passages reads, “you have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength” (Aurelius). As Aurelius took ownership over his own individual perceptions and overall mindset, he began to nurture his best self — a character whose resiliency and fortitude could lead a nation out of adversity.   

In the 1500s, Aurelius’ journals were first unearthed; Historian’s at first viewed them as nothing more than ancient documents. Once translated, the guidance and inspiration of his writings became held at the most pristine power. The journals were titled Meditations. Today, people from around the world often return to these texts when they are overcoming difficulties. 

 

First page of the 1811 English translation by Richard Graves (Image 2)

Aurelius’ story teaches us how to live like a Stoic in everyday life. While many of us are not faced with the same difficulties as Aurelius, we are all confronted with obstacles from time to time, regardless of how big or small. In the face of these conflicts, Stoicism asks us to focus on internal happiness, not externalities out of our control. Stoic’s strive to move forward with intention and compassion behind their actions, seeking to support themselves and their broader community. One of Aurelius’ quotes reads, “Do not act as if thou were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou live, while it is in thy power, be good” (Aurelius). In the face of adverse challenges, Aurelius’ Stoic beliefs grounded him in his rationality and morals. By accepting his own limitations and refocusing his attention toward what he could provide for his people, he minimized his worries and maximized his control. In simple terms, Aurelius challenges us to reflect upon our decisions and to “be good”. Through such universal and attainable messages, Aurelius illustrates how quickly one can begin to internalize Stoic values. 

So, whatever your plight, consider what Aurelius was able to so graciously endure. Marcus’ resilience is the key to navigating through our modern world and living each moment with further deliberation and reflection. The story of a Great Roman Emperor, a story that initially seems so disconnected from our own lives, is simply a story of a man who must learn to cope with the challenges he is faced with. While his responsibilities as Emperor seem overwhelming, and his conflicts tragic, Aurelius’ Stoic actions still proved to be effective, modest, and, perhaps most importantly, replicable. Whether it be a poor test grade or even a larger existential conflict, Aurelius reminds us to breathe, let go of what we cannot control, and conquer what we can. Aurelius’ story, like many others, inspires us to live the life of a Stoic.