3 Rules for Life From a Roman Emperor

Marcus Aurelius once famously said that a person should “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” It was his personal advice to himself nearly 2000 years ago, and it can still be applied by anyone even today. These words perfectly describe what it means to live a good life. It’s not what we say, but what we do that defines our character and the life we live.

Marcus was the emperor of Rome during the 2nd century A.D and is said to be the last in the line of the five good emperors. He was loved greatly by the people of Rome, as his ruling was always in line with justice, virtue, and wisdom. Marcus was a student of stoic philosophy and learned much from the writings of Epictetus.

Today, Marcus’s wisdom survives in the form of his personal journal called Meditations. It contains his most private notes that were for his own reflection and self-improvement. Nearly 2000 years after his death, we have the privilege of being able to read these notes and to learn from the wisdom of the most powerful man on the planet during his time.

In particular, Marcus had 3 rules for life that are distinctly emphasized in the Meditations. Let us look at how we can learn from these 3 rules and apply them to our modern life.

1. Pure judgement and reasoned choice

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

Whenever something bad happens, our initial reaction is usually to judge that we have been hurt. Someone has insulted you perhaps or a friend has betrayed you. The first feeling we get is usually one of “I am hurt.”

What Marcus is saying is that we only feel hurt because we ourselves have made that judgement. We hear that a person has insulted us and think to ourselves that they have somehow damaged us. We are betrayed by a friend and judge that we are in pain.

But those are just choices. We have chosen to think that we have been hurt, we have chosen to be in pain. It’s a personal judgement of the situation, not an objective one. We are not really hurt after all, as people are just saying words. The only time you can be in pain or be angry is when you choose to be. That judgement is something you can change at any time.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Thus Marcus gives the advice of removing your opinion of “I have been hurt.” Once you do, you will no longer be hurt. If someone insults you, don’t feel bad about it. They have just barked out a few vile words and are only making themselves look bad. You are still fine, alive, and strong because you have chosen to be.

Remember that you can always choose how you feel in any situation. That reasoned choice is your ultimate power to remaining unharmed in any situation.

2. Only desire what is in your control

“Every hour focus your mind attentively on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last.”

Most people desire what is outside of their control. They want more money, a better job, or whatever else. Those are certainly natural human feelings of desire.

But, the question to ask yourself is: does wanting those things help bring them any closer to reality? Will wishing for those things make them happen any sooner? Most definitely not!

Marcus’s advice is to focus on the here and now that is in your control. He tells us to take deliberate action and not to pin our hope on uncertainties. If you want more money, work harder. If you want a better job, create your application and apply. If you want anything, do something, take action that will move you forward towards it. Action is the only thing that will get you any real results.

“Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each one of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.”

Don’t fret if the hard work doesn’t pay off immediately. Results can take time to come about. But at the very least by taking action you have given yourself a chance to move forward. Even if you don’t get your results on the first try, you’ll still learn some new things that will help you succeed the next time. At the end of the day, stoicism and the advice here from Marcus is an advocation for taking action.

3. Always act like your best self

“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”

For one reason or another, we usually feel the need to have a good reason to do something before we do it. We will only help our friends if we think they will help us. We act friendly towards others if they act friendly towards us. There is a strong sense of fairness and always wanting something in return.

Marcus Aurelius and the rest of the stoics had a different viewpoint. They believed that acting like your best self was something that you should do regardless of what everyone else is doing. That one should try their best at all times, regardless of the situation.

You should do your best and take proactive action all the time because it will help you become the best version of yourself. You help your friend because that’s just what a good friend would do. If they don’t help you back, that’s their problem; you’ve already done your part and can live in peace knowing that. You are friendly towards others because that’s what you would want from them. They can be friendly or not, but you have made the decision to put in your own effort regardless of what they do.

“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”

Marcus also believed in the idea of having a purpose and that all (or most) actions should be aligned with that purpose. If not, then you’re actions don’t end up contributing anything very meaningful to your life. But if you have a motivation, an ambition, a project of purpose, then every action you take is adding value. That value goes out into the world and builds up your own strength and sense of fulfillment in the process. You become the best person you can be by acting like it, regardless of the actions of others.

In Summary

Marcus Aurelius’s writings in Meditations are a treasure trove of life advice. In particular, Marcus had 3 rules for life that are distinctly emphasized in his notes. There are:

  1. Pure judgement and reasoned choice
  2. Only desire what is in your control
  3. Always act like your best self

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