From an early age, Marcus Aurelius seemed destined to become a philosopher-king.
The emperor Hadrian called him verissimus, meaning “most true and truthful.”
Adopted into the line of succession of the Roman Empire at the age of 17, Aurelius pursued knowledge of the truth with undying passion.
He’s often regarded as one of the wisest men to have ever lived, often ranking in second after Socrates, and one of the few virtuous and humble emperors of ancient Rome. Evidence of Aurelius’ pursuit of the truth lies in the image that is painted through a series of notes he wrote to himself, known by the name of Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius, the emperor, spent most of his rule trying to keep functional an enormous administrative apparatus, while also fighting numerous wars on the frontier lines of his empire.
Famous for his frugal lifestyle, an essential trait of the stoic lifestyle, at one point the emperor sold most of the imperial palace’s furniture to pay off the empire’s debts.
On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, the father, played a complicated balancing act regarding his son, Commodus. Troubled in many regards, it was clear that he was not fit to be emperor of Rome, yet if Marcus would have choose to name another as successor to the throne that would have meant his son’s death.
Marcus Aurelius struggled with this, perhaps more than others. It is often true that the truth sets us free, but it often does so by breaking our hearts. For someone revered throughout the empire as a wise man, the most powerful man in the world must have had difficulties coming to grasp with this notion.
If there’s one thing we should internalize by this story, it ought to be this:
We know the choices we ought to make, the habits we should cultivate to live our best lives, the people who should surround ourselves with, and we earnestly intend to take all the steps required for a fulfilling life, but we often get lost on the way.
We want to lose weight, but we eat junk food on a daily basis. We want to get in shape, but we postpone going to the gym, over and over again. We want to save money, but we give in to the shiny toy syndrome and buy things we don’t need with money we have yet to earn.
Scientists can’t seem to agree why this is.
The most popular idea in psychology is that a part of our brain is rational and knows what’s good for us, while another part is impulsive and wants bad things. They struggle on and on until the rational part gets tired and gives in.
Even Angels Have Their Demons
Marcus Aurelius, the man, the emperor, spent his life in the pursuit of the most truthful and virtuous way of living. His Meditations are a testament to that.
But at the same time, the same notes he wrote as reminders to himself (the original title translates to “things to one’s self,”) show us the signs of an internal struggle to uphold the most sacred of virtues:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
We’re all broken…
I’ve yet to meet someone who isn’t. Probably never will. We all have gone through hell and back, some maybe more, some less, but doesn’t it truly matter?
Our dual nature makes it so that we are constantly at battle with our own selves. After all, we are one step above the demons, and one below angels. There’s a bit of both within each and every single one of us.
That’s just the harsh reality of the world we live in.
And I believe that during our darkest nights, as we battle demons that appear to be immune to almost everything we think or say or do, we’d often wish to get rid of them.
But, I dare ask you, “How would your life look like if you were to get rid of your demons?”
If You’d Get Rid of Your Demons, You’d Lose Your Angels Too
The truth is that at some deep unconscious level we’re all broken. The sad truth of this world is that we’ve all been broken, lied to, cheated, or left behind. We’ve all lost something and we all miss people we’ve never even met. We all attach a certain melancholic beauty to memories that never even happened.
And, at the same time, we’ve all broken others, lied, cheated, or closed the door behind us, never to return to those who’d do anything for us.
There’s good and bad in every person you meet. There’s beauty in searching for the good parts, there’s something noble about pretending that their light is all you see.
But there’s a demon inside each and every one of us.
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
The tired cliché of the world as a mirror is heartbreakingly true. What we see in the world, the chaos, the decay, is what resides within our own souls.
A Portrait of the Devil
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous character’s sins are absorbed by a portrait of his.
While we do not have the luxury of such a visual representation of the demons that inhabit our lives, we can feel their influence during our most troubled times.
This constant battle can be felt, as we find ourselves at various crossroads throughout our lives.
You can choose love or you can choose hate. You can choose courage or you can choose cowardice. You can choose to be passionate, optimistic, full of life, or you can choose to be gloom and depressed and angry at all the people who hurt you in the past.
There’s great freedom in being aware of that, for people often spend their days feeling as if they don’t have a choice. Indeed, we don’t have a choice over what happens in our lives and when, but we do choose what we think about those events. We are the only ones who derive meaning or pleasure from an experience.
But, of course, it requires a tremendous amount of energy to battle with your demons.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Carl R. Rogers
The paradox lies in the fact that the more we pretend that we are not haunted by our own demons, the stronger their influence. The more we pursue virtue, the more attractive sin becomes.
A lot of mental energy is wasted because we refuse to accept this simple fact: there’s an angel and a demon within us, and we must first listen to both, and then decide on what is the correct course of action.
What should you do?
- Accept the negative thoughts, the limiting beliefs, the downright terrible visions of chaos as normal.
- Deconstruct them. View them not as the absolute truth, but merely as one side of the coin.
- Listen to your angel. What is the alternative? Can you focus on the good within you?
Lastly, we should carefully consider the implications of both possible courses of action.
Just as Marcus Aurelius struggled two millennia ago, we must consider that, at times, our inner angel can be a bit naïve in its pursuit of absolute truth and virtue. Sometimes, our inner demon can provide as us a more practical way of doing things or alert us to some unforeseen implications to pursuing virtue at all costs.
Abraham Maslow once wrote in his The Psychology of Science that, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
It is, indeed, tempting to pursue one or the other, to either listen to the inner angel and silence the inner demon or the other way around.
But it’s also worth considering the fact that if we were to try to get rid of our demons, we’d also lose our angels. And we can never know in what insidious ways our demons might return to haunt us.
The hardest battle we fight is with our own selves. With our own negative beliefs and self-imposed limits and what we perceive as being burdens of the past.
What should come out of such a battle? A better you; a person who is no longer focused on escaping chaos, but rather embraces it, listening to both their inner angel and their inner demon.