“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short — the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 6.30
There’s something unusual about Marcus Aurelius — probably the greatest Roman Emperor of them all — warning others to avoid “being made ‘Emperor'”. It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so interesting. What is he saying? The Daily Stoic book is here to help us understand.
As you might already know, Marcus was a reluctant emperor. He really didn’t seek it, it was foisted upon him, and in many ways he tried to resist it. But ultimately he realized that this was the destiny laid upon him, and it was his duty and his “proper work”, as he mentions in the quote above. Once he accepted this as his lot in life, he resolved to be the best damn emperor there was — and he largely succeeded.
But he warns us not to fall into the same trap ourselves. “It can happen to you,” he says rather humorously. Most of us aren’t at risk of suddenly being made ruler of the known world against our will — so what is he really getting at?
Marcus is warning us — and himself, which is who he wrote this for — to not lose sight of what’s really important in life once you make it to the big time. Better yet, avoid the big time altogether and just stay humble. He’s saying, in effect: “Keep it real.” Don’t get a big head. Don’t let all that success and power change you. Remember who you are, and where you came from.
These are very common sentiments that we’ve all heard before. They’re repeated in many movies and songs throughout popular culture. That’s because there is wisdom in these words. We have to keep an even keel and a steady heart, even when we are suddenly elevated or find success — so that we don’t lose sight of the perspective that has gotten us this far.
My favorite part of this quote is where he says, “Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you.” Don’t let your ego and big head get in the way of true learning and growth. Don’t believe them when they say you’re amazing, and astounding, and the best ever.
Stay simple. Stay real. Stay focused and humble. Remember that in the end, we are all the same. And don’t get a big head, no matter how much success finds you.