While many Roman emperors are infamous for their tyranny and debauchery, Marcus Aurelius is famous for his statesmanship, generalship, and intellect. He reigned as emperor, 161-180 CE, and is considered the last of what are called “the good emperors.” Edward Gibbon in his book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) describes this period, 96-180 CE, glowingly: “If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name [this period].”
The five emperors who reigned during this period are described as “good” by historians because they generally respected the members of the Senate, ended arbitrary executions, acted in accordance with the public welfare, enlarged and protected the empire, and did their best to keep a general peace.
The ancient Greek Plato, in his most famous political work, The Republic, examines two critical questions: How does a society produce good men? How does a society produce a good state? No admirer of democracy and no believer in the political sense of the common people (demos), Plato concludes it is best to find, educate, and train the best men of a society, making them eventually philosopher-kings. It is to these men that the power to rule should be given. Some historians consider Marcus Aurelius to be history’s closest approximation to this ideal “philosopher-king.”
Not only a successful politician, administrator, and general, he was also a thinker and writer. We are lucky to have his philosophical system available to us in his writings, collectively called Meditations. In it he covers a wide range of subjects, sometimes becoming overly vague and abstruse. However, his main focus is clear: the ethical system of a good person; how a person should live his life—a good life.
Marcus Aurelius was schooled in and became the last great proponent of the philosophical system called Stoicism. Founded by Zeno of Citium on the island of Cyprus in the 3rd century BCE, Stoicism, as practiced by Aurelius, includes the following fundamental principles for living a truly “good life.”
About the world we live in:
- The Universe has unity. All is inter-connected.
- The patterns which govern the Universe and human lives continue as always.
- Man possesses a divine element.
- Man is a social being.
- Man is distinguished from other animals by his reason.
- Man is simply a speck in the vast universe; his life is a mere drop in the bucket.
- All life is fleeting.
About how humans ought to act:
- Live in accord with “Universal Nature.”
- Pursue the quest for truth, justice, and moral rectitude through right actions.
- Perform one’s duty and purpose which Nature has given you.
- As social beings, be kind and generous to one another.
- Maintain the “governing self” within, free from all negativism and distraction.
- Avoid regret about the past and worry about the future; concentrate on the present.
- Persevere through pain.
Writer and educator, Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI.