The Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who were inspired by Aristotle and his Ethics, believed that the way to experience happiness (eudaimonia) was to cultivate virtuous character. In other words how we live and who we become determine the quality of our happiness. Happiness was not only a state of being, but a quality that we needed to consciously cultivate within ourselves.
The Stoic philosophers in particular saw the developing of one’s character as the essential ingredient of a life well lived. It was, according to them, important to develop mastery over ourselves, our irrational and destructive urges, and to live a life that is consciously contemplated. This was especially true when living in an unpredictable world. At the very least, we needed to make sure that we could count on our own solidity.
Like Heraclitus and his observation that we cannot step into the same river twice, the ancients were well aware that the world was in a state of constant flux, as were we, if we did not take the time to steady ourselves. One of the repeating themes of Marcus Aurelius’s writings is to determine that which we can control and that which is not in our control. He urges himself not to concern himself with the latter as it was a recipe for disappointment and unhappiness. As for the former, the entire crux of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is to shape himself into the person he can admire and count on.
In Marcus’s introduction to Meditations, we are presented with his gratitude list, a statement of what he had learned from the influential individuals in his life, and by extension, a list of traits he found valuable and towards which he strove. His list includes: Self-respect, gentleness, generosity, being one’s own master, rationality, patience, cordiality, avoiding jealousy, sincerity, love of truth and justice, plain speech, “ dignity tempered with affability,” incorruptibility, modesty ( in food, clothes, luxury…), strength, endurance, constancy, humility. This was nothing short of striving towards “perfection” of one’s character.