Genre: Ancient Civilizations
Author: Marcus Aurelius
Title: The Emperor’s Handbook (Buy the Book)
The Emperor’s Handbook is a series of notes written by Marcus Aurelius, who ruled Rome at the height of its power during what has been dubbed the “age of gold” by contemporary historians. He was born in 121 AD and his father died when Marcus was only 3 years old.
He was raised by his mother and grandfather, and from an early age was identified as a potential heir to the throne. In 138 AD he was adopted by Emperor Antoninus Pius, who treated Marcus as a son and provided with the best tutors.
Marcus assumed the title of Caesar in 139 AD at the age of 18 and became emperor in 161 AD until his death in 180 AD. He inherited a country starving from famines and recovering from a series of floods. To make matters worse, his armies returned from putting down revolts in neighboring countries carrying a plague that would kill off one-third of the empire’s population, depleting the tax base and causing massive food shortages.
Border tribes soon began to descend from the Baltic region to harass the empire. His success as Emperor in overcoming these challenges is even more remarkable when paralleled with his troubled personal life, including persistent rumors about his wife’s infidelity.
The influence of his mentors and family led Marcus to become a champion of the Stoic school of philosophy, which placed great emphasis on the power of the human mind as well as the unified community characterized by many parts working to benefit of the whole.
While modern day philosophy is a largely academic discipline, schools in Roman times advocated a radically different way of life based on an assessment of the role humans play in the universe. As such, it is not surprising that Marcus was among the first to espouse radical ideas such free will for all citizens rather than for just the elites.
Marcus believed that what you think in your mind governs what you believe and how you act while also shaping your perspective on the world, a view typical of the Stoic school. He saw mastery of his emotions as the gateway to a state of complete freedom and happiness.
He wrote that all events in life, whether good or bad, should be handled through careful reasoning, with a sense of reason best gained through study of philosophy and reflection on experiences. Even so, he believed strongly that each individual was bound by a duty to work towards the good of the community.
Human accomplishment impressed Marcus far less than the concept of an all-powerful presence that governs the world and inhabits all living things. Marcus was in awe of this power and had faith in its governance of the world, and evidenced a belief that the personified nature and the divine being he refers to are one
While Marcus was tolerant of most people, he was not so of Christians, which has led historians to conclude that he must have bought into the popular charges of deviant practices by Christians and was put off by their unpatriotic actions and denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Marcus was a man who united the private and the public, the active man and the reflective.
He worked to be a ruler who holds a great deal of power yet who makes ethical and moral decisions based on reason. He seemed to have it all figured out but would be the last to admit it. The Emperor’s Handbook challenges the way we see the world and unites the facets of our lives that our culture often places in opposition to one another. Indeed, this book has stood the test of time because it encapsulates a system of beliefs and actions that have held sway through the ages.
Marcus was born in 121 AD, and his father died when Marcus was only three years old. He was raised by his mother and grandfather and from an early age was identified as a potential heir to the throne. His friends described him has having a “serious demeanor and friendly disposition.” Hadrian, Marcus’s predecessor, dubbed him “Verrisimus” meaning “most earnest,” a nickname he would bear for his entire life and that would later appear on his coins.
Following Hadrian’s death in 138, Marcus was, to his wishes, adopted by Antoninus Pius. Antoninus was Hadrian’s successor and treated Marcus as a son, showering him with love and affection. At the point of his adoption, it had been determined that Marcus would serve as the next Emperor of Rome. As a result, Antoninus provided Marcus with the best private tutors in the country, as Antoninus saw the value of preparing Marcus to fulfill his future duties.
Marcus assumed the title of Caesar in 139 AD at the age of 18, and in 140 AD became Consul whereupon he was invested with the tribunician power.
Invented by Augustus, this position consisted of ten magistrates elected annually and given the ability to propose legislation directly to one of the public assemblies for a vote. They could also veto any legislation or election. He held this position until he became emperor in 161 AD.
Immediately following his appointment as Emperor, he named Lucius Ceionius
Marcus was only three years old, and his marriage was the source of rumors around the empire, especially concerning his wife’s faithfulness. Marcus’ wife bore fourteen children, however the only son to survive was Commodus, Marcus’ vain and unstable successor.
He was so unlike his father that there were whispers of his wife’s infidelity and rumors that the son was, in fact, “the gift of a gladiator.”
During Antoninus’ and Hadrian’s reigns, Rome was peaceful and fruitful. Marcus inherited a country starving from famines and recovering from a series of floods. To make matters worse, the army in neighboring Britannia revolted and the vast Parthian empire attacked Syria, replacing their king with one hostile toward Rome.
Marcus addressed this looming threat by deploying his army, led by Lucius, to deal with the unrest in the east. They were
Lucius and Marcus traveled north to address this imminent threat; but shortly after their departure, the plague broke out and forced them to retreat to Rome. Lucius died of a stroke in his carriage on the voyage back to Rome, forcing Marcus to rule the empire alone for the remainder of his life.
“Although others may at times hinder me from acting, they cannot control or impede my spirit and my will. Reserving its judgments and adapting to change, my mind bypasses or displaces any obstacles in its way. It uses whatever opposes it to achieve its own ends; it turns roadblocks into roads.”
Freedom of speech and religion is something often taken for granted in modern Western civilization, but in Rome, prior to the rule of Marcus
People were born into their role in society, and the ability to think or speak freely depended upon the wealth of a person’s family. Marcus was the first emperor to entertain the idea of free will for all citizens, an idea he attributes to his brother, Severus. It was never something that came to complete fruition, but it was, nonetheless, something he worked hard toward.
“There is no reason why you shouldn’t live here on earth as you’d live in the hereafter…I’m a free man, and no one can keep me from living as I like, which is to conform to the nature of a reasonable and sociable being.”
Marcus believed that our thoughts and desires govern our
Marcus feared that he would never be able to control his thoughts and desires and, consequently, would end up as many of his fellow aristocrats had: enslaved by irrational and antisocial thoughts and desires. As will be addressed later, Marcus was a strong believer that reason should govern one’s thoughts, actions, and words. As such, he believed that ignoring such reason, or denying your spirit the ability to act as it should naturally, would contradict one’s natural state of being.
Marcus believed that we are under a constant bombardment of sensations by way of our five senses and that these sensations are not real until our mind acknowledges them. He believed that if we become too mentally lazy to exercise the power of self-censorship and judgment, we lose control of our lives.
Presently, humans generally believe that the only freedoms that can be withheld from a person are their political freedom or freedom of speech. Marcus believed that allowing others to govern whether or not a person is truly free leads only to cynicism and hopelessness.
Mental freedom, Marcus believed, gives us the ability to forgive others.
The issue changes from what others have done to you to an analysis of what thought
But if you do not share his ideas of good and evil, then you should find it even easier to overlook the wrongs of someone who is confused and in a moral muddle.” In this way, Marcus acknowledges the positive relationship between mental freedom and one’s actions toward others.
“What then can guide us through this life? Philosophy, only philosophy. It preserves the inner spirit, keeping it free from blemish and abuse, master of all pleasures and pains, and prevents it from acting without a purpose or with the intention to deceive, ensuring that we lack nothing, whatever others may do or not do.
It accepts the accidents of fate as flowing from the same source as we ourselves, and above all, it waits for death contentedly, viewing it as nothing more that the natural dispersal of those elements composing every living thing.”
From an early age, Marcus was extremely passionate about philosophy.
As such, he is the only emperor to have transcribed his thoughts so regularly, which raises the question: Why him? What made Marcus different than those who preceded and followed him? To answer these questions, we must first identify the modern state of philosophy versus Marcus’ philosophy.
It encouraged a way of
There were four major schools of philosophy in ancient Rome: the Academics (Plato); the Peripatetics (Aristotle); the Epicureans; and the Stoics.
As previously mentioned, each school had different beliefs on how to live a life characterized by joy and personal satisfaction. Marcus was of the Stoic school of thought. Stoics placed great emphasis on the power of the human mind, which is evident in Marcus’ notes, as well as the unified community characterized by many parts working toward the betterment of the whole.
They believed that there should be a separation between one’s private and public life, but that a person could not achieve complete happiness cut off from society. Many of the excerpts from The Emperor’s Handbook describe the interconnectedness of the mind and society that is a cornerstone of Stoicism.
It is apparent from his transcriptions that Marcus was humbled and grateful for his mentors from whom he learned many of the basic principles that would serve him well as an emperor. His mentor Diognetus taught him to doubt claims of wonder workers, to refrain from cock fighting and gambling, to take criticism well, and to prefer a hard bed of planks with a pelt over it to the plush beds of the upper society.
However, there was one mentor, Rusticus, who Marcus respected more than the others. Rusticus brought to Marcus’ attention that his life needed correction and endorsed his character training, encouraged him to avoid making a fool of himself trying to impress others, and to not attempt to pose as a man above temptations.
It should be noted that Marcus changes the format of this note to emphasize the impact Rusticus had on his character more so than his other tutors: “He taught me to rid my speech of rhetorical devices and poetical flourishes and fancy conceits; not to walk around the house in lavish dress and to avoid other affections of this sort; to write simple letters like the one he wrote my mother from Sinuessa…. to read books for detailed understanding and not to settle for general summaries or accept uncritically the opinions of the reviewers.”
It is apparent from the quote that Rusticus had an immeasurable impact on teaching Marcus about the simple discipline by which he would rule Rome: with self-control and an unmatched amount of passion and reason. Marcus’ selflessness and discipline
While mentors played an undeniable role in Marcus’ life, he also credits his family members, especially his adoptive father and brother, for the impactful role they would play in his upbringing.
He credits his brother, Severus, for introducing him to the aforementioned idea that “all men are equal under the law and free to say what they think, and of an empire that respects above all else the liberty of its subjects.” From his father he learned to think long and hard about decisions so that once they are made, you can give them your unswerving loyalty, to enjoy luxuries but not to miss them when they are taken away, as well as the cultivation of a spirit that is perfectly balanced through strength, steadfastness, and moderation.
Marcus’ mentors and family members drilled into him the Stoic school of thought he would begin practicing in his young adulthood. Marcus valued his philosophical teachings and mentoring equally and would fall back onto when confronted with major decisions throughout his term as the Emperor of Rome.
Emotional control/Emotional self-sufficiency
“Build your life one action at a time, and be happy if each act you perform contributes to fulfilling a complete life. No one can prevent you from doing this. ‘But what if some outside circumstance stands in my way?’ Not even that can stop you from acting justly, wisely, and reasonably. ‘But it may block me from doing something I want to do.’ Yes, but by welcoming the obstacle and by calmly adapting your action to it, you will be able to do something else in harmony with your goals and with the sort of life you are seeking to build.”
Marcus strived for a complete mastery of his emotions because he believed that emotional self-sufficiency would eliminate the need for people to rely on things outside of their control (people, laws, etc.), and bring about a state of total and complete freedom and happiness.
He uses the words pleasure and
While pleasure and desire are not negative terms by definition, they are in the context Marcus uses them. He implores people to “[c]ut the strings of desire that keep you dancing like a puppet.” He concludes that those who are wise create happiness out of their own free acts. The idea that freedom of the mind correlates with happiness is a concept mentioned that heavily populates his notes.
With emotional stability, Marcus claims, comes the ability to interact with others free of emotion.
If you do not let others govern your emotions, you cannot be upset with someone for having offended you. This realization allowed Marcus to rule Rome free of concern for what naysayers said about his decisions.
He believed that each decision should be made after taking certain measures and with a good amount of reason. After this process had taken place and the decision had been made, there would be no doubt in his mind that he had made the correct decision and all concern over criticism would dissipate.
“Everything bears fruit – Man, God, the Universe – each in its own season. It doesn’t matter that this manner of speaking is customarily reserved for the vine and other plants. Reason also bears fruit, both for itself and for everything else, and all its fruit tastes of sweet reasonableness.”
According to Marcus, all events in life, good or bad, should be handled through careful reasoning. A person’s sense of reason is gained through his study of philosophy and his reflection on past experiences. This reason is then applied to present events to come to an ultimate conclusion on the means of best addressing a problem.
“Reason and logic are governed by their own laws and employ their own methods. They launch themselves at will, and they head straight for their target. This is why we call actions that seem to us reasonable and logical “right,” because they are right on target.”
The target referred to in this quote is not necessarily the final solution to a problem. Marcus does believe, however, that each problem has one solution for each person. That is, one person’s addressing of a specific event, having used their own reasoning, will have one conclusion that they have surmised from the culmination of their experiences and teachings.
There is a sense that one comes to a state of rationalization, that is, a state similar to that of total emotional self-sufficiency where an individual has mastered their ability to reason. It is a state of being that Marcus was envious of and strived toward because of his belief that “[t]o a rational creature, natural acts are also reasonable ones.” As thoughtful as Marcus was, he believed that there were “creatures” that acted impulsively with reason. They needed
There are two main themes that characterize Marcus’ infatuation with nature: the vastness of
the nature and the seeming interconnectedness of all things by way of nature.
Marcus holds little stock in one’s
“In the great universe, Asia and Europe are but small corners, the ocean a drop of water, Mount Athos a handful of dirt, all of
Marcus personified nature as the living and breathing governor of all mankind. She is strong, and determined to impart her will on the whole of the earth. Marcus believed that everything is interdependent. There is a state of balance that nature is constantly maintaining, the balance of all of the life on earth doing what they were essentially made to do.
According to Marcus, “[a]ll things are woven together, and they make a sacred pattern… All the parts are arranged in relation to one another, and together they form one beautiful orderly whole. For there is one universe made out of all things, one God pervading it all, one being and one law, one reason common to all intelligent creatures, and one truth…”
Just as Nature has the powers to balance herself, so too do humans by means of rationality and reason. In this context, Nature is referred to as a giving and governing spiritual being that “equips rational beings with the same powers as herself.
Just as Nature works on whatever opposes or resists her, giving it a place in the necessary order and making it part of herself, so to can a rational being convert every hindrance into material for himself and use it for his own ends.” There is this expectation, similar to reason, that one can be in a state of equality and balance within nature.
Marcus believed that humans should “ignore everything else and attend only to the guiding light of reason and the inspiring spark of divinity within you. Fear
There is this sense that much of Marcus’ humility was derived from his affection for nature. He recognized the vastness of nature, the timelessness of it and the spirituality of it as a living, breathing being. He recognized his role in history and how it measured up against all of the men who have come before him and would come after him, and was thus uninspired by legacy or power. “Add up the sum of all being and see how microscopic your share of it is; the sum of all time and how infinitesimal your span; and of destiny – what fraction of it is yours?”
“Well then, remember to take those little vacations into yourself. Whatever you do, don’t be troubled or anxious, but be free, and look at things like a man, a human being, a citizen, a part of the creation that must die. Chief among the thoughts close at hand, keep these two: first, that nothing outside the mind can disturb it – trouble comes from the mind’s opinion of what lies outside it; second, that everything you now see will change in a moment and soon be no more. Can you even begin to count the changes you have already witnessed? This world
Marcus believed that a person’s mind and their spirit were one and the same.
What you think in your mind governs what you believe and how you act while shaping your views of the world. This emphasis on mind over everything else was the result of his heavy immersion into the Stoic school of philosophy. It was believed by Stoics, as well as most other schools of philosophy, that “failing to understand the workings of one’s own mind is bound to lead to unhappiness.”
Marcus also implores that “[i]t’s time you recognized that you have something higher and more godlike within you than that which tweaks your emotions and pulls your strings. So, what’s controlling your mind at this moment? Fear, suspicion, lust or is it some other vile thing?”
This idea alludes to Marcus’ comments on desires and pleasures in which he used a similar “puppet” metaphor. He harped on the idea that there should be nothing that controls your mind or your reasoning if you are to reach a state of complete happiness that is attainable only through the balancing of one’s mind.
His valuation of the mind was countered by his devaluation of the body (Marcus was prone to sickness from an early age, which may have prompted such process of thought). His approach to the composition of the human body was simple: it is “composed of three parts: the body, the breath of life, and the mind.
The first two belong to you insofar as you must take care of them, but only the third is truly yours.” The body was of use in the sense that it must be maintained, while the mind must be constantly challenged and growing.
As previously mentioned, Marcus was often ill physically, and he appointed a co- Emperor for fear of sudden death, but he was most concerned about his fleeting mental capacities. He valued his ability to reason and partake in philosophical conversation to such an extent that he lived in a constant state of fear that he would lose such ability, imploring that “[w]e must get on with our lives, then, not only because we are closing on death with each passing day, but because our mental capacities may desert us before death decides to take us.”
In fact, when describing the physical deterioration of the body he pointed out that both pleasure and pain are simply mental reactions to physical events and that the mind is so powerful that it can overcome such feelings.
“To those who ask ‘Where have you seen gods, and how can you be so sure of their existence that you worship them?’ I reply: First, they are clearly visible to the eye; and second, I’ve never set eyes on my soul, yet I honor it. So it is with the gods: I see their power at work around me every day, and I conclude that they exist, and I worship them.”
Similar to the way Marcus described nature’s granting people wisdom and interconnecting the entire world, he refers to an all-powerful presence that governs the world and lives inside all living things. Marcus was in awe of this power and has faith in its governance of the world.
This all-powerful God’s connection with the nature Marcus previously alluded to is unclear, but there is a belief that the personified nature and the divine being he refers to are one
This description is amazingly similar to the Holy Spirit described in the Christian Bible, however he makes no allusion to Christianity or its beliefs.
While Marcus was tolerant of most people, this tolerance did not extend to Christians. This is a curious fact, and one that is not addressed in his notes. Historians have concluded that Marcus must have bought into the popular charges against Christians of incest and cannibalism, and was put off by their unpatriotic actions and denial of the Emperor’s divinity.
While Marcus was not convinced of his divinity or even his superiority over the common man, this behavior on the part of the Christians in Rome unquestionably infuriated the elite members of Roman society. There is one mention of Christians in his notes in which he makes a comment about their “sheer contrariness” for life. In ancient Rome at this time, it was widely believed that Christians were fanatics who had little use for this life and believed so strongly in the afterlife that it appeared to many non-Christians that they were, in fact ungrateful to God and his gifts.
Having said this, there are a number of similarities between Marcus’ view of religion and that of the Christians. For example, Marcus makes a note about forgiveness and the power of forgiveness claiming “[i]t is within a man’s power to love even those who sin against him.
This becomes possible when you realize that they are your brothers, that they wrong you unintentionally or out of ignorance, that in a little while you and they will be dead, and above all, that they have not really hurt you so long as you have not sullied your conscience or damaged your inner self by responding in kind.”
While he obviously made no connection between the two as he was not well versed on the practices of Christianity, and it is uncertain to which tutor or school of philosophy he can attribute this belief. His views of sin and its correlation with pleasure aligned with Christianity: “He also sins who pursues pleasures as if they were good and flees hardships as if they were evil
Moreover, the person afraid of hardship is at odds with something that is going to happen as part of the natural order of things, and this is sinful. Likewise, the person panting after pleasure will not hesitate to act unjustly, and this is clearly sinful.” This note, more so than the previous, suggests a heavy influence of the Stoic belief of the natural order of things and the contradiction of self-control and desire.
Marcus alludes to the hereafter in a number of his notes, but admits he is uncertain as to which form he would assume in the afterlife.
He discussed his death openly and without fear, and in some instances appeared to welcome death. Many scholars believe he obsessed over the idea of death because he was in a constant state of pain as a result of his illness. Marcus references suicidal thoughts in a number of his notes. Some believe, ironically, that Marcus’ indifference toward Christians spurned from his jealousy that they were celebrated for giving up their lives for their religion.
He envied the way they accepted their deaths to the lions with so little emotion. One of his notes referencing suicide argued that “[t]here is no reason why you shouldn’t live here on earth as you’d like to live in the hereafter. If others won’t permit it, then it’s time to call it quits and exit this life with grace and equanimity.”
Marcus approached religion much like he approached reason, the mind, and nature in the sense that the gods are all powerful and are to be called up, through prayer, to aid humans struggling with mental weakness: “If they are powerful, why not ask them to free you from the fear or desire or sorrow caused by something, rather than asking them to give or withhold the thing itself
Another prays ‘Rid me of my enemy,’ but you pray ‘Rid me of the desire to be rid of my enemy.’ Another, ‘Do not take my dear child from me,’ but you, ‘May I not fear the loss of my child.’ Turn your prayers in this direction and see what comes of it.” He recognized the gods as the providers for mankind and believed that it is
He also recognized the human inclination to treat the gods as providers of materialistic things. Considering Marcus saw little value in materialistic or worldly things and the role they played in happiness, it is for mental fortitude and self-control that he prays. “What a wondrous power lies within every man’s grasp: to do only what God approves and to accept all that God assigns!”
“Just as you are part of the whole community, each of your actions should contribute to the whole life of the community. Any action of yours that fails, directly or remotely, to make this contribution, fragments the life of the community and jeopardizes its unity. Its rebellious act, like the man in a town meeting who holds himself aloof and refuses to come to any agreement with his neighbors.”
While Marcus’ job required him to play a major role in the community, he makes a series of notes about the Roman individual’s contribution to the community. His schooling in
It should be noted that Marcus was one of the first emperors of Rome to truly value every working part of the community.
He believed that each member should work toward the good of the community and that there was no moral law, but rather the law that is good is in fact that which is good for the community: “Except in the case of those things they hold in common, most people cannot agree on a definition of what is good.
For this reason, it makes sense to aim at the common good, the well-being of society as a whole. He who strives to achieve this aim in life will be consistent in his behavior and therefore one and the same person throughout his life.” Under Marcus’ reign, Rome experienced some of the greatest challenges in its history, and it should be observed that the Empire might have crumbled under such adversity.
The Empire, however, flourished like never before, overcoming war, and famine and disease. It is no coincidence that the empire survived such tragedy, being led by an Emperor who put so much stock in the community as a whole and the construction of a community by its individuals. He implored these individuals to take pride in their community and to think of it in a selfless manner instructing them that “[w]hat does not hurt the community cannot hurt the individual.
Every time you think you’ve been wronged, apply this rule: if the community isn’t hurt by it, then neither am I.” The people of Rome looked to Marcus for leadership and commitment to the community. Marcus did not disappoint, believing that “[d]oing good to others is still a duty, not yet a service unto yourself.”
Marcus believed in a type of freedom that he thought was unattainable in political and religious freedom and preached a freedom of the mind that is now believed to be unattainable. He questioned those who claimed to be acting freely without freeing their mind or acting with reason.
The Emperor’s Handbook challenges the way we have come to see the world and sheds light on the unity between facets of our lives that our culture places in opposition
of each other.
Marcus was a man who united the private and the public, the active man and the reflective, the man who holds a great deal of power and the one who makes ethical and moral decisions based on reason, and those who recognize the value in political and vocal freedom as well as the freedom from political tyranny. He was a man who seemed to have it all figured
The reason this book has withstood the test of time is because it is a reminder of a system of beliefs and actions that have remained true for the past 2,000 years and will remain true for the next 2,000 years; the importance of reason, the mind, community, the devaluation of social barriers, legacy, and materialistic goods.
“Do not waste the rest of your life speculating about others in ways that are not to your mutual advantage. Think of all that might be accomplished in the time you throw away — distracted from the voice of your own true and reasonable self — wondering what the next man is up to and why, what he’s saying, or thinking, or plotting.
“Purge your mind of all aimless and idle thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill. Get in the habit of limiting yourself only to those thoughts that — if you are suddenly asked, ‘What are you thinking at this moment?’ — enable you to reply without equivocation or hesitation, ‘This’ or ‘That.’ In this way, you show the world a simple and kindly man, a good neighbor, someone who is indifferent to sensual pleasures and luxuries and untouched by jealousy, envy, mistrust, or any other thought you would blush to admit.
“This sort of man, determined to be counted among the best in the pursuit of virtue, is a veritable priest and minister of the gods, especially of the god that dwells within him and keeps him untainted by pleasure, unharmed by pain, safe from any wrong, innocent of all evil, a mighty warrior in the greatest warfare of all — the struggle against passion’s dominion. With justice like marrow in his bones, he delights from the depths of his being in whatever happens, in whatever fate the gods allow. He never —
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.
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