The Stoic Wisdom of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: An Introduction in Six Short Videos


Though it enjoys a par­tic­u­lar pop­u­lar­i­ty here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, the rig­or­ous­ly equani­mous Sto­ic world­view comes to us through the work of three fig­ures from antiq­ui­ty: Epicte­tus, Seneca, and Mar­cus Aure­lius. Epicte­tus was born and raised a slave. Seneca, the son of rhetori­cian Seneca the Elder, became an advi­sor to Nero (a posi­tion that ulti­mate­ly forced him to take his own life). Mar­cus Aure­lius, the most exalt­ed of the three, actu­al­ly did the top job him­self, rul­ing the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. He also left behind a text, the Med­i­ta­tions, that stands along­side Epicte­tus’ Enchirid­ion and Seneca’s many essays and let­ters as a pil­lar of the canon of Sto­icism.

It is from the Med­i­ta­tions that this series of six videos from Youtube chan­nel Einzel­gänger draws its wis­dom. Each of them intro­duces dif­fer­ent aspects of Mar­cus Aure­lius’ inter­pre­ta­tion of Sto­icism and applies them to our every­day life here in moder­ni­ty, pre­sent­ing strate­gies for stay­ing calm, not feel­ing harm, accept­ing what comes our way, and not being trou­bled by the actions of oth­ers.

Though the impor­tance of these aims can be illus­trat­ed any num­ber of ways, their achieve­ment depends on accept­ing the notion cen­tral to all Sto­ic thought: “the dichoto­my of con­trol,” which dic­tates that “some things are in our con­trol and oth­ers aren’t.” When life hurts, “it often means that we care about things we have no con­trol over, and by doing so, we let them con­trol us.”

All the Sto­ics under­stood this, but for Mar­cus Aure­lius, “being unper­turbed by things out­side of his con­trol allowed him to cope with the many respon­si­bil­i­ties and chal­lenges he faced as an emper­or, and to focus on the task he believed he was giv­en by the gods.” He knew that “it’s not the out­side world and the events that take place in it, our bod­ies includ­ed, that hurt us, but our thoughts, mem­o­ries, and fan­tasies regard­ing them.” To indulge those fan­tasies means to live in per­pet­u­al con­flict with real­i­ty, and thus in per­pet­u­al, and futile, griev­ance against it. The stronger our judg­ments about what hap­pens, “the more vul­ner­a­ble we become to the whims of For­tu­na, the unpre­dictable god­dess of luck, chance, and fate,” forces that even­tu­al­ly get the bet­ter of us all — even if we hap­pen to have the world’s might­i­est empire at our com­mand.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Sto­icism, the Ancient Greek Phi­los­o­phy That Lets You Lead a Hap­py, Ful­fill­ing Life

Every Roman Emper­or: A Video Time­line Mov­ing from Augus­tus to the Byzan­tine Empire’s Last Ruler, Con­stan­tine XI

How to Be a Sto­ic in Your Every­day Life: Phi­los­o­phy Pro­fes­sor Mas­si­mo Pigli­uc­ci Explains

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

350 Ani­mat­ed Videos That Will Teach You Phi­los­o­phy, from Ancient to Post-Mod­ern

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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