Marcus Aurelius: To Live a Good Life, Practice Kindness

Marcus Aurelius: To Live a Good Life, Practice Kindness

The great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on why living a good life comes down to one simple principle: practicing kindness.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  January 2024

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“Only one thing is important,” the great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius declares in his Meditations, a collection of his journal entries, just under 2,000 years ago: “to behave throughout your life towards the liars and crooks around you with kindness, honesty, and justice.”

We must not let the poor judgment of others impact “the purity, lucidity, moderation, and justice” of our minds, Marcus advises, but should aspire instead to be like an ever-flowing, self-cleansing spring:

Suppose someone standing by a clear, sweet spring were to curse it: it just keeps right on bringing drinkable water bubbling up to the surface. Even if he throws mud or dung in it, before long the spring disperses the dirt and washes it out, leaving no stain. So how are you to have the equivalent of an ever-flowing spring? If you preserve your self-reliance at every hour, and your kindness, simplicity, and morality.

If someone treats you unjustly, do not let that injustice muddy the waters of your mind, Marcus implores; rather, wash it out with kindness.

This doesn’t mean rolling over if people mistreat you — rather, it simply means not stooping to their level. Not seeking revenge, not being blinded by what they have done, but remaining just and true in your thoughts and actions.

For kindness is not weakness; in fact, it reveals strength of character. Choosing kindness is wholly within your power, Marcus claims, and there’s no better time to start doing so than now:

Try living the life of a good person and see how it too suits you — a person who’s gratified by the lot he’s been assigned by the universe and satisfied with the justice of his acts and the kindness of his character.

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 CE and a significant contributor to Stoic philosophy. Marcus reigned during a time of many significant military conflicts, as well as the Antonine Plague, a pandemic that devastated the population of the Roman Empire, causing the deaths of five million people. Despite these difficult events — or perhaps because of them — the philosophy Marcus advocated is one of calmness and serenity. As he advises in one of many natty aphorisms: ‘You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.’

Living a good life may not be easy, but it is simple, Marcus thus suggests: keep a steady stream of kindness at the forefront of your thoughts and actions, and the good life will be yours. He concludes:

If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if, rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady…; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!

What do you make of Marcus’s analysis?

  • Is practicing kindness really within everyone’s power, regardless of what’s happened to them?
  • Do you agree that living a good life simply comes down to practicing kindness?
  • Or do you think there’s more to it?

Learn more about Marcus’s Stoic philosophy

If you’re interested in learning more about how Marcus thought we could live good lives, his Meditations is filled with fantastic reflections and advice, and features on our list of Stoicism’s best books and indeed Marcus Aurelius’s best books.

You might also enjoy the following related reads:

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
Philosophy Break

Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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