Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and philosopher best known for his book Meditations.
His writings are reflections on the philosophical insights that he gathered from Cynicism, Stoicism, and Socratic teachings. He wrote them down as a reminder to use them in daily life.
Even though Marcus does not use formal Stoic vocabulary, the overarching tone of Meditations is strongly reminiscent of Stoic ideas, and so, it is often the first book picked up by beginner Stoics.
What did Marcus Aurelius say on happiness?
Marcus discusses happiness several times in his writings, emphasizing its role in shaping our thoughts, judgments, and, ultimately, a good life.
He mentions, for example, a virtuous life is identical to a happy life while other things like health or material possessions are unimportant to happiness.
Here are a few quotes from Meditations in which Marcus Aurelius discusses happiness:
“What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.” (Meditations, 6.54. Robin Hard trans.)
“For the life of every one of us lasts but a moment, and yours is almost done, and yet you have no respect for yourself, and allow your happiness to depend on what passes in the souls of other people.” (Meditations, 2.6. Robin Hard trans.)
“But the person who is blessed by good fortune is the one who has assigned a good lot to himself, and a good lot consists of this: good dispositions of the soul, good impulses, good actions.” (Meditations, 5.37. Robin Hard trans.)
“Another does me wrong? Let him look to that; he has his own disposition, and his actions are his own. For my part, I presently have what universal nature wills that I should have, and I am doing what my own nature wills that I should do.” (Meditations, 5.25. Robin Hard trans.)
“Happiness (eudaimonia) is a good guardian-spirit (daimon), or ruling centre within. What is this that you are doing, my imagination? Go away in the name of the gods, just as you came; for I have no need of you. But you have come according to your age-old habit. I am not angry with you: only, go away!” (Meditations, 7.17. Robin Hard trans.)
“Always keep this in mind, and also this further point, that happiness in life depends on very few conditions; and just because you have resigned any hope of excelling in dialectic and natural philosophy, do not on that account despair of becoming a free man, and one who is modest, concerned for his fellows, and obedient to God; for it is possible to become a wholly god-like man and yet be recognized by nobody.” (Meditations, 7.67. Robin Hard trans.)
“When you want to gladden your heart, think of the good qualities of those around you; the energy of one, for instance, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and some other quality in another. For there is nothing more heartening than the images of the virtues shining forth in the characters of those around us, and assembled together, so far as possible, in close array. So be sure to keep them ever at hand.” (Meditations, 6.48. Robin Hard trans.)
“The cucumber is bitter? Then cast it aside. There are brambles in the path? Step out of the way. That will suffice, and you need not ask in addition, ‘Why did such things ever come into the world?’ For anyone who has made a study of nature would laugh at you, just as a carpenter or shoemaker would laugh at you if you criticized them because you could see in their workshop the shavings or parings from the items that they were working on.” (Meditations, 8.50. Robin Hard trans.)
“People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills; and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul, especially when a person has such things within him that he has merely to look at them to recover from that moment perfect ease of mind (and by ease of mind I mean nothing other than having one’s mind in good order). So constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself; but keep within you concise and basic precepts that will be enough, at first encounter, to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return.” (Meditations, 4.3. Robin Hard trans.)
According to Marcus Aurelius, happiness is not an external goal or material possession that we should strive for, but rather a state of mind that comes from living in accordance with reason and nature.
He believed that true happiness comes from living a simple and virtuous life, rather than seeking pleasure or material wealth.
What is happiness for the Stoics?
Stoicism holds that living a happy life requires cultivating a mental state of virtue or excellence, which the Stoics identify with wisdom and reason.
For a Stoic, the ideal and excellent life consists of living in harmony with nature or the cosmos, with serene indifference to external events, and in friendship with other beings.
The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, defined happiness as a smooth flow of life. His successors, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, took forward this definition.
Today, we think of happiness as a positive emotion or a good mood that lasts a short time. But the ancient Stoics used the Greek term eudaimonia to describe happiness.
Eudaimonia does not exactly translate as happiness, but rather as a long-lasting positive emotion. It is how a person feels about their entire life up to that point.
A eudaimonic life is one that is both rewarding and satisfying.
Marcus Aurelius encourages us to cultivate a mindset of inner peace and contentment rather than seeking happiness through external sources.
He emphasizes the need to live our days and carry out our duties with virtue, and to remain ready for death, as the path to true happiness.
“Accept without arrogance, relinquish without a struggle.” (Meditations, 8.33. Robin Hard trans.)
Stoics, like Epicureans, believed that the quality of life, rather than the length of life was more important. They felt that pursuing virtue (and hence happiness) was preferable to living a long life.
Finally, here’s something Marcus Aurelius might have said to you if he saw you trying to please a narcissist:
“Do you want praise from a man who curses himself three times an hour? Do you want to please a man who is unable to please himself? Or can a man be said to please himself if he regrets nearly everything that he does?” (Meditations, 8.53)
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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