Family Learning of Marcus Aurelius and Us

“Of my grandfather Verus I have learned to be gentle and meek, and to refrain from all anger and passion. From the fame and memory of him that begot me I have learned both steadfastness and manlike behavior. Of my mother, I have learned to be religious, and bountiful; and to forbear, not only to do, but to intend any evil; to content myself with a spare diet, and to fly all such excess as is incidental to great wealth. Of my great-grandfather, both to frequent public schools and auditories, and to get me good and able teachers at home; and that I ought not to think much, if upon such occasions, I were at excessive charges. Of him that brought me up, not to be fondly addicted to either of the two great factions of the coursers in the circus, … nor in the amphitheater partially to favor any of the gladiators, or fencers … . Moreover, to endure labor; nor to need many things; when I have anything to do to do it myself rather than by others; not to meddle with many businesses; and not easily to admit of any slander.” ~Marcus Aurelius

Family Learning

Even today we learn more from family than from others. During the first few years of life, we spend nearly all of our time with family. That is the time when experts say we do much of our learning. But Marcus Aurelius is talking about things beyond the obvious learning of basic language, eating, and getting dressed.

It seems that he had some astute family members who taught him well. It is likely, of course, that they also taught him some stupid things. He has either chosen to politely not mention them, or ignore such teachings when given. The wisdom of these teachings are as valid today as they were in his time. We simply have to put them into more modern terms.

Be Gentle and Meek

We can be sure, I think, that Marcus’ grandfather was not advising him to be a wimp. By being gentle and “meek”, he wanted him to learn to be understanding of others. Marcus should, he thought, not think of himself as better than other simply because he came from a royal family. A lesson forgotten by too many of today’s politicians.

An angry person is rarely a reasonable person. Verus wanted Marcus to learn to reason with others, therefore not get angry with them when they did foolish things. Screaming and striking someone in anger is not likely to get them to listen and learn.

Do No Evil

Naturally, your mother is the person you probably got much of your family learning from. Marcus Aurelius is no exception. He tells us he learned many things from his mother. One of those was forbearance. Patience and self-control is certainly something important for any person to learn. It is especially so for someone destined to be emperor.

Another important lesson he got from his mother was to do no evil. That is certainly a good one to learn. In can get tricky, though. Many people who do evil believe wholeheartedly that they are doing good. Marcus’ mother went even further, though. Not only should he do no evil, she taught, but he should not even wish to do evil. Since thought has a power of its own, this was a very wise teaching.

A Good Education

The family learning that great-grandfather contributed was to advise Marcus to get a good education. The important thing he seems to be advising is to not rely on a single source for your education. Get many teachers, attend many schools. This is the best way to get a well-rounded education.

Family Learning on Entertainment

While the forms of entertainment have changed, it is clear to me what Marcus means when he talks of the things taught by the one who brought him up. Today we have concerts and movies instead of the Circus mention in the quote. And instead of gladiators and fencers, we become addicted to sports and worship our heroes in football, basketball, and baseball.

We all need to relax occasionally, but not get so into our relaxation that it is all we do. This is what Marcus is being advised against. It’s fine to attend a play, or watch the gladiators, but don’t get so involved in these entertainments that we stop doing the things that are truly important.

Endure Labor

As one who is in a royal family, you would think that Marcus might be taught to rely on servants and slaves to do all labor. But that is not what he was taught. I think he was probably taught to do more than “endure” labor as we would interpret that statement today, but to love it. He was taught to enjoy labor for noting happens unless someone labors to make it happen. If everyone decided they were too good to do labor, civilization would crumble. Unless we first invent robots to do one thing after another until they take over and kill us all.

Spread Thin

I think we can interpret the family learning lesson to avoid meddling in too many businesses as a caution to not spread ourselves too thin. When we try to do everything, the usual result is that we don’t do any of it well. When a person in a job interview is asked what he can do and he replies “everything,” it is considered to mean that he has no particular skills. Better to be an expert at a few things than a person who does many things with mediocrity.

Our Family Lessons

We all learned from our families. Some things were worth learning, some not. Some were taught intentionally, others not. Form my parents I learned that if I wanted things I had to work for it. I also learned to be reasonable self-sufficient out of necessity.

Possibly the best lesson I got from my mother was the time the news on TV was saying that Russian leader Khrushchev was in the hospital and I said that I hoped he would die. My mother slapped me and said, “Don’t you ever wish another person to be dead, I don’t care who he is.” A great lesson to learn.

Take a moment to think about what lessons your family taught you.


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