Someone passes away. A marriage ends. A job is lost. Are these events good or bad? It depends on the context. We’re sad if someone close to us passes away, but if it’s someone who tyrannized us, we might be glad. The end of our marriage is a bad thing, if we’ll lose our last chance with the person we love, and it’s a good thing, if we’ll suffer more in the long run by remaining with the person. Losing a job can make us feel worthless, or it can be the moment we realize that we’re worth far more. We have the ability to write our own life stories and determine what everything means to us. Losing a job isn’t bad in itself; no event is bad or good in itself. The story we write after we’ve lost the job determines whether it’s a positive or negative event. As we write more and more stories about our life, they all come together to form our philosophy: a pair of lenses that we see everything in the world through.
It’s important that we craft a pair of lenses that empowers us and leads us towards a good life. The beautiful thing about being human is that we can share our stories with each other and modify each other’s lenses. In this video, I’d like to share with you the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and we’ll discover the story that allowed him to become the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, an inspiration for leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela, and someone who people still go to for advice over 1800 years after his death.
Marcus believed that we’re all Parts of a greater Whole which he called Nature: you can think of it like a giant organism that we’re all a tiny piece of. We’re like the fingers on a hand of a body. Just like the fingers of a hand work together to serve the body, Marcus believed that all organisms were meant to work together to serve Nature. As a small piece of this larger body, we can control our own perceptions and actions; we can control what we do, but we can’t control what happens to us. Marcus believed that Nature has its own goals, and it was up to us to find out what those goals were and live in accordance with them. A finger that doesn’t serve the body is unnatural. All of the Parts of a body need to be harmonized to serve the goal of the Whole body. For Marcus, a good life is one that’s lived in accordance with Nature. With this worldview in mind, he believed that we mainly needed two virtues to live a good life: justice and piety.
Justice is when a finger cooperates with other fingers and does what’s good for the Whole body: it’s about focusing on what’s in our control and doing what’s good for society. Think about all of the great ideas and technology that you have access to: most of them came from someone other than yourself. Someone sacrificed their time and energy to bring something new into the world and share it with us. Life is a lot better and richer when we cooperate. Marcus believed that what’s good for the body is good for the finger, or what’s good for society is ultimately good for the individual.
On the other hand, an unjust person acts selfishly: they’re a finger that sabotages the body without realizing they’re attached to it. Helping one another is in accordance with Nature and harming one another is not. This view of Justice helped Marcus avoid getting angry with others; it oriented him towards being cooperative and understanding. He realized that being negative towards others would ultimately just harm himself: we’re two Parts of the same Whole. On the other hand, how good could a relationship, a home, or a society get if everyone shared new ideas, technology, and invested their energy for the good of one another? How good could the world get if we acted justly? Piety is when a finger realizes that it can’t control other fingers and that the Whole body has its own goals. The finger can’t always control what happens to it. Even though we may set out to serve others, there’s no guarantee that they’ll let us, or that they’ll serve us back.
There’s no guarantee that things will unfold how we expect them to, or that others will live justly. Marcus, like most Stoics, encourages us to love our fate. The Whole body is smarter than the finger. Whatever happens to us was meant to happen as a part of the web of cause and effect. For Marcus, our only duty is to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions, and do what’s in our power to serve the common good. This view of Piety allowed him to endure hardship. No matter what happened to him, he did what was in his power to do, and for everything that wasn’t, he trusted the will of Nature. With the concepts of Nature, Justice, and Piety in mind, we can see Marcus’ solution for a good life: serve the common good and love all that happens to you.