Marcus Aurelius opens his famous book, Meditations, with a statement of gratitude. The Emperor describes himself not in terms of his own achievements, nor in terms of qualities he has developed in himself, but instead by listing lessons he has learned, and to whom he owes that learning.
In the first book of the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius discusses a number of influences on his life — his grandfather, his tutors, philosophers, his mother, and his adoptive father. From each influence, he writes the lessons he has learned from them, and the things he is thankful for — including the importance of piety, and generosity, the foundations of the stoic philosophy that guided his life, and for the fortune of having a good family, a healthy body, and strength of character.
Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman empire for nineteen years during the Second Century AD, and is today remembered as the last emperor to rule over the Pax Romana, a period of time during which Rome held supremacy over the Mediterranean Sea and Western Europe. Despite the position of supreme power Marcus Aurelius held over his citizens, he never lost a sense of duty to his subjects or to his empire, and did not succumb to the temptations of power as many of his successors did.
Over his lifetime Marcus Aurelius frequently wrote on the subject of personal development, self control, and philosophy. Although he kept his writing private, and used them to guide his own thoughts and behaviours, the various writings were collected after his death and have been preserved for thousands of years. Despite the sheer breadth of time that has elapsed since the Emperor wrote his Meditations, the personal nature of his thoughts still holds advice for all of us today.
What kept Marcus Aurelius’ sense of devotion and duty so strong? Could it be that his own sense of debt to those that came before him, and to those that taught and raised him could have played a part? Throughout the Meditations Marcus Aurelius calls upon himself to remember the lessons and guidance he has received. This strong sense of not just gratitude, but also debt, and the desire to remember and pay back that debt did much to shape the character of the Emperor.
In today’s world it is easy to forget that all of us owe lessons to our own families, teachers, friends, and fortune. In an individualistic society we are often told that success is achieved by hard work alone, that money and power alone are worthy goals. But to live well, to accept the various outcomes of fate, and to avoid the corruption and abuse that often comes with both money and power, we should all take time to express gratitude, and to remember that all of us owe a debt to others.
Take some time to do as Marcus Aurelius did. Write down the lessons, qualities, or things you are grateful for in life, and to whom or what you are thankful for providing each thing. You may find yourself surprised by how much you owe others, society, and good fortune.