Where did Marcus learn to be Marcus? Ernest Renan writes that Marcus was very much a product of his training and his tutors. But more than his teachers and even his own parents, “Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus.”
All his adult life, Marcus strived to be a disciple of his adopted step-father, to whom he say, according to Renan, as the “the most beautiful model of a perfect life.” It’s a beautiful and inspiring example for all to take heart in, because while Antoninus is largely forgotten by history, the lessons and values he passed on to his son, have echoed through eternity. You are here, reading this email, because of time and care that man took as a parent. And that’s something worth thinking about today—on Father’s Day—whether you’re a mom, a dad, a son or a daughter.
We know what Marcus earned from Antoninus because at the end of his life, Marcus sat down and wrote about it. In fact, almost no one is referenced or spoken of more in Meditations than Antoninus, and we’d be foolish not to take that endorsement seriously. Better yet, we should use it as a call to greatness for ourselves, for our own children and for a better future.
1: To Love Philosophy
Antoninus “honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them.”
Marcus had a pretty important day job, a job that would have been enough to consume an ordinary person’s entire day—even, possibly, their entire life. After all, millions of lives depended on how well he performed at work and whether he managed his responsibilities properly.
So it’s interesting that Marcus took pains to remind himself that, as important as his job was, philosophy needed to be the priority. We get a good sense of how he thought about his priorities with this line in Book 6 of Meditations:
"Philosophy: Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrace. It’s all that makes the court—and you—endurable."
Treat philosophy like the people who birth you and raised you, he says, keep returning home, like you do to your father or step-father, your mother or step-mother.
Yes, we’re busy. Yes, we (hopefully) love our jobs, and we need what those jobs provide, both in terms of financial security and fulfillment. But it would be a grave mistake to leave philosophy only our scraps, only the leftover time we have when the workday is through. Philosophy is not a frivolous hobby—it’s the key to everything we’re trying to do. It’s a compass, a guiding light, it’s what we owe our ultimate love and devotion.
2: To Read Deeply
Antoninus believed an emperor-in-waiting needed to read widely. Marcus tells us that “he never let things go before he was sure he had examined them thoroughly, understood them perfectly.”
Marcus wrote about how he was one with his weapon—like a boxer, more than a swordsman. A boxer just clenches their fist. A fencer has to pick something up.
Reading isn’t about “getting the gist of it,” as Marcus derided. It’s about making the material a part of your life and your mind. It’s about lingering and digesting until it takes firm hold, never to be dislodged. It’s about, as Marcus learned from his father, examining them thoroughly.
3: To Be Decisive
Antoninus had a remarkable “unwavering adherence to decisions,” Marcus tells us. “Once he’d reach them,” there was no hesitation, only resolute action. A leader, a father, a human being must be able to decide.
4: To Be Humble
On the emperor Hadrian’s deathbed, he summoned Antoninus. It was time to hand over the crown. Antoninus pushed back. With this “indifference to superficial honors,” we’re told, Hadrian was certain he made the right decision in making Antoninus his heir.
Marcus said he revered “His restrictions on acclamations—and all attempts to flatter him.” When the Senate, for instance, proposed to change the month of September to his name and October to his wife’s, Antoninus refused.
We again see Marcus putting this lesson into practice throughout Meditations. He liked to remind himself that his imperial “purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood”—they are not special. He said to avoid “becoming Caesarified”...just as his father had avoided it, and never let himself be fooled into thinking he was better or more important than other people.
5: To Keep An Open Mind
Marcus liked Antoninus’ “tolerance of people who openly questioned his views and his delight at seeing his ideas improved on.”
Marcus would later talk about being happy to have been proven wrong. “If anyone can refute me,” he wrote, or “show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” This was a well-formed lesson from his stepfather.
6: To Work Hard
“Take Antoninus as your model, always,” Marcus wrote. “How hard he worked, how much he put up with...his ability work straight through till dusk—because of his simple diet (he didn’t even need to relieve himself, except at set times).”
Marcus would later talk about rising early, working hard and doing what his nature and job required. That work ethic wasn’t inborn—it was developed. He learned it from example.
7: To Take Care of His Health
Antoninus worked hard, but he also made sure “to take adequate care of himself,” Marcus says. “He hardly ever needed medical attention, or drugs or any sort of salve or ointment.”
While Marcus practiced the art of memento mori—and knew that death was something that could randomly visit anyone, at any time—he still took pains to maintain his health. His doctor was Galen, one of the most famous physicians of antiquity, and presumably Marcus didn’t keep him around to shorten his life. No, he wanted to survive and be as healthy and strong as possible while he was alive.
Health is wealth. Taking care of yourself is important. What good can you do in this world if you feel like shit all the time? Or if you lack the physical and moral strength to be of good to anyone?
We are on this planet for a short amount of time. But if we practice bad habits, if we let our urges run wild, we will surely shorten that time. That’s not Stoic, that’s stupid.
8: To Serve The Common Good
We learn from the Historia Augusta that one of the reasons Hadrian adopted Antoninus was he had this kind of instinct to serve others. Just after Aelius Verus—Hadrian’s original choice to succeed him—died, a meeting was called at the senate. Antoninus helped his father-in-law, Annius Verus, walk to the senate house. “For this act,” we read in the Historia Augusta, “Hadrian adopted him.”
When he became emperor, when he was given absolute power and unlimited wealth, the first thing he did was set up a res privata—a small team in his court to manage his private financial account and keep it distinctly separate from the imperial treasury. When his wife scolded him for his penny-pinching within the household, Antoninus replied, “now that we have gained an empire, we have lost even what we had before.” Meaning their wealth was no longer there, now it was meant to be shared, particularly with the less fortunate. Accordingly, Antoninus gifted money to the less fortunate, he cancelled debts, he lent his own money at interests below market rates, he paid out-of-pocket to distribute food in times of famine.
And Marcus would learn to do the same. “The fruit of this life is a good character,” he wrote, “and acts for the common good.”
9: To Be Self-reliant
Antoninus showed Marcus that fortune was fickle. We mentioned above that spartan attitude to money. Marcus would have observed Antoninus “taking frugal meals and reducing the pomp on state occasions to republican simplicity.” Frugality and industry was the only way to guarantee financial security. Marcus said, “Self-reliance, always”—what a lesson for a father to teach a son.
10: To Look To Experts
“This, in particular,” Marcus said he learned from Antoninus: the “willingness to yield the floor to experts—in oratory, law, psychology, whatever—and to support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfill his potential.”
When the Antonine plague hit Rome in 165 CE, Marcus knew what to do. He immediately assembled his team of Rome’s most brilliant minds. As McLynn explains, his “shrewd and careful personnel selection” is worthy of study by any person in any position of leadership. He searched for and brought in the best. He broke the mold and filled his staff with talent, not aristocrats or cronies. He actually listened to advice. He empowered people to make decisions. He hired Galen, the most famous physician and polymath of antiquity, to lead medical lectures and anatomy demonstrations, wanting to elevate “the intellectual tone” of his court. It was Galen who he empowered to lead the efforts to combat the plague, the smartest medical mind of his time.
11: To Lead From The Center
Hadrian was known for his globe trotting and a tendency to seek some peace and quiet abroad when Rome was particularly chaotic. Other emperors retreated to pleasure palaces or blamed enemies for issues during their reign.
In pointed disapproval of these other rulers, Marcus praised Antoninus “particularly for staying in Rome and running the empire from the centre.” He marvelled at his “constant devotion to the empire’s needs. His stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take responsibility—and blame—for both.”
No one would have faulted Marcus if he had fled Rome when the Antonine plague broke out. Most people of means did. Instead, Marcus stayed, at enormous personal cost. He braved the deadliest plague of Rome’s 900-year history, never showing fear, reassuring his people by his very presence. He locked down his citizens, but he did not lock them out. His doors were always open. He summoned priests of every sect and doctors of every specialty and toured the empire in an attempt to purge it of the plague, using every purifying technique yet known. He attended funerals. He gave speeches. He showed up for his people, assuring them that he did not value his safety more than his responsibility.
12: To Not Lose Your Temper
Antoninus had what all truly great leaders have—he was cool under pressure:
“He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion but decisively, with no loose ends.”
It’s what Marcus was constantly reminding himself (and what inspired our Daily Stoic Taming Your Temper course). “When you start to lose your temper,” Marcus wrote, “remember: there’s nothing manly about rage.” He saw Antoninus as a real man...who didn’t need to unload on other people.
13: To Be Self-Controlled
“He knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness—indomitable.”
These were all lessons Marcus carried with him his whole life. They guided the most powerful man on the planet through many trying times. So much so that he recounted them in his private journal late in life. And we’re still recounting them close to 2,000 years later.
Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.
Life is a question and how we live it is our answer.
I also had the following notations I had on the challenges of the past 3 months--it is even worst now in light of over 26,000,000 people in Iran under the official line of poverty --these notations sent shivers down my spin:
- Conversation with Reza Khandan (Be Yad Yar) about the imprisonment of Nasrin Soutodeh & the reflections by Shirin Ebadi--the courage of Reza Khandan and the maturity of the children in spite of all the challenges
- The Iranian economy is at a StandStill
- 15 Thousand Miliard Tomans in Digital Currency (According to Navid Jamshidi at Arya)
- 40 to 200 percent inflation rate due to the wrong policies
- Remembering political prisoners (( Yashar Tabrizi was sentenced for being a civil activist who documented the plight of the grave sleepers; Ali Keradgerai who spoke out against Khameini
- About 64% of villagers are migrating to cities as Iran dries up
- How the Iranian regime swindled people out of billions
- Joined a Club House with 8,000 attendees on the realities of Iran as Elections Loom
- Iran International conducted a survey on the very cold state of Elections from the "GOMAN Organization"
- A Sense of the realities in Iran Right now: 1) Bread price went up 50%; 2) Cooking Oil went up 35%; 3) 64 Percent of village residents were driven away from their homes due to the lack of water as Iran faces a major drought; 4) Hunger continues along with people under the official line of povertry; 4) People chanted: We're Hungry & Poor--Hamas has missiles in Gaza