April 26th, Marcus Aurelius’ birthday


Marcus Aurelius was born 1899 years ago, on April 26, 121.

During the last 14 years of his life he faced one of the worst plagues in the history of Europe, the Antonine plague, which received his name. In the midst of this plague, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations, the greatest classic of stoicism, where he records moral and psychological advice to himself. He often applies the stoic philosophy to the challenges of dealing with pain, illness, anxiety and loss.

Marcus Aurelius teaches us that fear does us more harm than the things we fear.

Stoic Meditation: Be thoughtful, but don’t panic.


As we mentioned before, during the rule of Marcus Aurelius the Antonine Plague took place and devastated the Roman Empire, causing the death of five million people.

Dealing with the fear of death is a recurring theme of Meditations. The plague is also cited, as in this passage, where the emperor condemns irrational attitudes:

“The corruption of the soul is a far graver disease than any comparable disturbance in the air that surrounds us. For this corruption is a pestilence of animals so far as they are animals; but the other is a pestilence of men so far as they are men.”

Meditations IX,2

The whole third paragraph deals with the expected attitude in the face of death: Do not be careless, but do not fear:

“Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills. For such as it is to be young and to grow old, and to increase and to reach maturity, and to have teeth and beard and gray hairs, and to beget and to be pregnant and to bring forth, and all the other natural operations which the seasons of thy life bring, such also is dissolution. This, then, is consistent with the character of a reflecting man—to be neither careless nor impatient nor contemptuous with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature. As thou now waitest for the time when the child shall come out of thy wife’s womb, so be ready for the time when thy soul shall fall out of this envelope.”

Meditations IX,3

Stoicism and the Plague: Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague


Marcus Aurelius died 1840 years ago, on March 17th, 180AD, during an expedition against the Marcomans in Vindobona (now Vienna). He was a victim of the Antonine Plague that devastated the population of the Roman Empire, causing the death of five million people, almost 5% of the Empire’s population.

By the middle of the second century A.D. the commercial and financial prosperity of the Roman Empire was formidable and when Antoninus Pio died in 161, the financial surplus left to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, was 2.7 billion sesterces. The crisis that incapacitated the Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D. and fatally injured its supremacy was not caused by a human enemy but by a microscopic and lethal virus. The invisible threat originated in Central Asia, where it was released into the expanding population of the Ancient World. When the pandemic reached the Far East in 161 A.D., it began to inflict appalling deaths on the population of the Han Empire. At the military borders, Chinese forces lost between 30% and 40% of their personnel, with soldiers either killed or weakened by the first deadly outbreaks of infection. The virus led the same devastation to the fortified Roman borders and imposed greater fatalities among the legions than any barbaric horde could wish to attain. The pandemic also spread the infection through the Mediterranean core of the empire, transmitted in the Roman bazaars crowded with people conducting their business. For the first time since the time of Augustus, there has been a serious decline in state finances” (The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes, Raoul MacLaughlin)

Marcus Aurelius knew death closely, both in battle and at home, having lost 6 of his 13 children. He consoled himself in the following way:

Another prays: How shall I not lose my son? You do: How shall I not be afraid to lose him? (IX, 40)

The Meditations contain numerous passages reminding us that illness and death are natural and should not be feared. For example, Aurelius says:

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” (IV,17)
“Everything is ephemeral, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” (IV,35)
“You’re a little soul carrying a corpse”(IV,41)
“Alexander the Macedonian and his groom by death were brought to the same state; for either they were received among the same seminal principles of the universe, or they were alike dispersed among the atoms. (VI, 24)
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Donald Robertson, author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius“, wrote a dramatic account of the events surrounding the Antonine Plague and the discussion of these events in relation to the stoic philosophy. Excellent reading.

Stoic Meditation: It is not events that disturbs you but only your judgment of it.


DEAR EPICTETUS: I’m worried about the new coronavirus. They say that it’s a pandemic, and that up to 70% of the world’s population may eventually get it. There are already cases here in California. I don’t want to get sick, or have my family get sick. How can I stay safe?
Concerned in California

DEAR SLAVE: We are all going to die. Maybe from coronavirus, maybe from cancer, maybe from a heart attack. What, did you think you were immortal? What does it matter if you die next week, feverish and lungs filled with fluid, or 40 years from now, wrinkled and weak and no longer able to remember your own name? Leave your time of death to Fate. Meanwhile, wash your hands for 30 seconds, don’t touch your face, tell your family that you love them, and try to be a good person. It is not the coronavirus that disturbs you but only your judgment of it.

from Duff McDuffee at Cynic & Stoic Memes


Stoic Meditation: Musonius Rufus

“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.”

Musonius Rufus, fragment 51

Musonius Rufus was a preeminent Stoic in Rome, most famous nowadays for being Epictetus’ teacher and so an influencing Marcus Aurelius.

The full quotation:

When I was still a boy at school, I heard that this Greek saying, which I here set down, was uttered by Musonius the philosopher, and because the sentiment is true and striking as well as neatly and concisely rounded out, I was very happy to commit it to memory. “If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains; if one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains.”

Afterwards I read that same sentiment in a speech of Cato’s which was delivered at Numantia to the knights. Although it is expressed a little less compactly and concisely as compared with the Greek which I have quoted, yet because it is earlier and more ancient, it may well seem more impressive. The words from his speech are the following: “Consider this in your hearts: if you accomplish some good attended with toil, the toil will quickly leave you; but if you do some evil attended with pleasure, the pleasure will quickly pass away, but the bad deed will remain with you always.