The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was renowned for his ability to remain calm in the face of provocation. On one such occasion, a notoriously hot-tempered, and extremely wealthy, aristocrat called Herodes Atticus lost his temper with Marcus, who was presiding over a legal dispute between him and the citizens of Athens. Herodes did the unthinkable and lunged at the emperor as though he intended to strike him. The praetorian prefect guarding the emperor, instinctively reached for his sword. He would have cut Herodes down in an instant but Marcus quickly signaled him to step back. The emperor rose from his chair completely unfazed and said only “My good fellow, an old man fears little”, before declaring the hearing adjourned. He meant, perhaps, that having come to terms with his own mortality he wasn’t easily flustered by threatening behavior.
We can surmise that Marcus’ lifelong training in Stoicism contributed to his remarkable composure in tense situations like this. Indeed, we know that as a young man he struggled to control his temper because he tells us so at the beginning of The Meditations, the private record of his reflections on Stoic philosophy. Marcus says that he frequently became angry with his beloved Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, and was grateful that he never lost control and did something that he would have regretted. Marcus had probably heard the notorious story about his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian, who once flew into a rage and stabbed some poor slave in the eye with the point of a metal stylus. When Hadrian finally calmed down and came to his senses he apologized for this horrific act and asked the man if there was anything he could do to make amends. The slave, however, said that all he wanted was his eye back. That was something even an emperor couldn’t grant him. Although our anger may sometimes be fleeting, the harm done by it can nevertheless be permanent.
1. We are naturally social animals designed to help one another.
The Stoics believed that humans naturally form communities and have deep-seated social instincts. We should always bear in mind that we’re adapted to work together for mutual benefit rather than conflict and destruction. Elsewhere, in one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, Marcus tells himself to prepare each morning for the day ahead by imagining all sorts of encounters with troublesome individuals while reminding himself “Neither can I be angry with my kinsman nor hate him for we have come into being for cooperation
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