What is a virtuous life and how does one live it? What are virtues? Who do you know that lives a virtuous life?
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, begins his Meditations with a list of virtues that he has learned from those who have influenced his life. He lays out exactly what it means to live a virtuous life, living in accordance with Nature, and how to live the virtues fully.
These virtues lie within each one of us and therefore we have no excuse not to live virtuously—or do we? As a disciple of Christ, I strive daily to live a virtuous life through Him because I am powerless alone. I understand fully the vital importance of: “living morally, being temperate, abstaining from evil deeds and thoughts, to want little, not to meddle with other people’s affairs, my character requiring discipline and improvement , not to be ready to slander, not to busy myself with trifling things, to look carefully after the interests of friends, (Meditations, 193-198)etc. “As a grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding and not in a reproachable way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used (195)” (this is my favorite!). However, I fail daily.
As I was reading over his list of virtues and the list of those who have taught or shown examples of certain virtues, I reflected on my own life: who has modeled certain virtues in my life? When I think of these virtues, whose face comes to mind:
comitas (humour), clementia (mercy), dignitas (dignity), firmatas (tenacity), frugalitas (frugalness), gravitas (gravity), honestas (respectability), humanitas (humanity), industria (industriousness), pietas (dutifulness), prudential (prudence), salubritas (wholesomeness), severitas (sternness), veritas (truthfulness)
Do I live these virtues? Could my name be on someone’s list of learned virtues? My daughter, my students? This was a very humbling exercise, I must say.
Marcus Aurelius begins his list with immediate family members: his father, grandfather, mother, great-grandfather and brother Severus. Following his family, he lists the virtues he learned from:
- his governor,
- his tutor Diognetus,
- his teacher Rusticus,
- his philosophy teachers Apollonius; Maximus (Claudius, not the Gladiator!); Sextus-the grandson of Plutarch; Alexander the Platonic, and Catulus
- Alexander, his grammar teacher,
- Fronto-a grammarian and rhetorician
I have included a summary below of the virtues and the virtuous from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Virtues learned from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:
- Grandfather Verus: good morals and the government of my temper
- Father: modesty and a manly character
- Mother: piety and beneficence and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in the way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich
- Great-grandfather: not to have frequented public schools, and to have good teachers at home
- Governor: no partisan games; endurance of labor, to want little, to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.
- Diognetus, his tutor: not to busy self about trifling things, endure freedom of speech, learn philosophy, write dialogues in youth.
- Rusticus, a teacher: my character requires improvement and discipline; do not be led away with sophistic emulation; do not write on speculative matters; abstain from rhetoric and poetry and fine writing; do no walk about the house in my outdoor dress; write letters with simplicity; with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; to read carefully and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch.
- Apollonius, his philosophy teacher: freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; receive from friends what are esteemed favors, without being humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.
- Sextus: a benevolent disposition; look carefully after the interest of friends and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration; never show anger or any other passion; possess much knowledge without ostentation.
- Alexander the grammarian: refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion.
- Fronto: observe what envy and duplicity and hypocrisy are in a tyrant
- Alexader the Platonic: do not continually excuse the neglect of duties required by relation to those with whom we live
- Catulus: not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason.
- Severus: love my kin, to love truth, to love justice; consistency and undeviating steadiness in regard for philosophy and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily and to cherish good hopes, and to believe I am loved by my friends.
As we approach the new year of 2022, I will add these virtues to my personal resolutions! Will you join me?
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. (1909).The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son