The 13 Points of the Marcus Aurelius Commencement Speech

Wisdom from One of History's Great Philosopher-Kings
May 19, 2016

Emperor Marcus Aurelius governed for nearly twenty years (161-180 A.D.), earning the distinction of being the last of the “Five Good Emperors.”  Marcus was a philosopher-king, capable of defeating his political and military leaders, while also becoming known as one of the finer Stoic philosophers of his day. 

In the later years of his life, he penned what would become known as his Meditations or The Emperor’s Handbook (as titled in the 2002 translation by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks) – a Proverbs-like collection of lessons and thoughts compiled over the course of his life and rule.   

On a recent re-reading of Aurelius, it occurred to me that he would (were he still living) likely deliver an outstanding commencement address.  His bullet points would look something like this…

  • “Every hour be firmly resolved, as becomes a Roman and a man, to accomplish the work at hand with fitting and unaffected dignity, goodwill, freedom, and justice.  Banish from your thoughts all other considerations.  This is possible if you perform each act as if it were your last, rejecting every frivolous distraction, every denial of the rule of reason, every pretentious gesture, vain show, and whining complaint against the decrees of fate.  Do you see what little is required of a man to live a well-tempered and god-fearing life?  Obey these precepts, and the gods will ask nothing more” (II.5).
     
  • “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” (III.4).
     
  • “Nothing whatsoever – neither popularity, nor wealth, nor power, nor the pleasures of the flesh, nor anything of the sort – should compete in your affection for the good that flows from reason and neighborliness.  Although for a while these inferior loves may seem quite compatible with an orderly life, they will soon overpower and destroy you.  Simply and freely choose what is best, and never let go of it” (III.6).
     
  • “There is no present advantage in anything that may someday force you to break your word, or to lose respect for yourself, or to hate, suspect, or curse another, or to pretend to be other than what you are, or to lust after what you’d be ashamed to seek openly” (III.7).
     
  • “Calm down.  Be simple.  Has someone done something wrong?  He has wronged himself.  Has something happened to you?  Fine.  Every thread of your life was woven on the great loom of destiny from the beginning.  The conclusion?  Life is short.  Save the moment by doing what is reasonable and right.  Be serious, but not with fears and frets and frowns” (IV.26).
     
  • “Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet.  I hear you say, ‘How unlucky that this should happen to me!’  Not at all!  Say instead, ‘How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen.  The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint.’ … Do the waves that crash upon you prevent you in any way from being just, forgiving, moderate, discerning, truthful, loyal, free-spirited, and in possession of all the other noble qualities that nature wills for man’s well-being?  The next time you are tempted to complain of your bad luck, remember to apply this maxim: ‘Bad luck borne nobly is good luck’” (IV.49).
     
  • “If it is good to say or do something, then it is even better to be criticized for having said or done it” (V.3).
     
  • “Nothing should be called good that fails to enlarge our humanity” (V.15).
     
  • “Do your duty – and never mind whether you are shivering or warm, sleeping on your feet or in your bed, hearing yourself slandered or praised, dying or doing something else.  Yes, even dying is an act of life and should be done like everything else, ‘to the best of your abilities’” (VI.2).
     
  • “Let this be your one joy and delight: to go from one act of kindness to another with your mind fixed on God” (VI.7).
     
  • “You always own the option of having no opinion.  There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.  These things are not asking to be judged by you.  Leave them alone” (VI.52).
     
  • “Bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about” (VII.3).
     
  • “Do not feel for misanthropes what they feel for mankind” (VII.65).
Brian  Phillips

Brian Phillips

Dr. Brian Phillips is the Director of CiRCE Consulting & the Headmaster of the CiRCE Academy.  He also serves as a pastor in Concord, NC, where he lives with his wife and their four children.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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