One of the most popular Stoic philosophers in history is Marcus Aurelius. He was the emperor of Rome from 161 AD to 180 AD and ruled during a time of extreme turmoil. He campaigned in many wars, saw extreme poverty and suffering and turned to writing as a way of ‘making sense’ of it all. He is well known for his untitled journal writings which are now referred to as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. His writings have influenced and helped millions of people over the last two centuries and are the basis for many self-help gurus and even therapy courses.
One of his primary teachings is based on the concept of letting go of things we cannot control. This is a profound lesson coming from someone who, arguably, had a whole lot of control and power as the emperor of Rome.
What You Cannot Control
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
According to Marcus Aurelius, there are very few things you can control beyond your opinion. Examples of things you cannot control are health, reputation, wealth and prosperity — to name a few. Although you may be able to influence health, for example, by having a proper diet, you still do not have complete control whether or not you are unfortunate and get cancer.
The reason Aurelius says to not focus on things you cannot control is that by doing so, you cause yourself great suffering. It’s like trying to force someone to love you when you know that you can’t make someone love you. Chasing after unrequited love just prolongs your suffering and makes you feel completely helpless. The advice most people give with unrequited love is to move on. Marcus Aurelius is simply saying that we need to realize this lack of control exists over a lot of other things we choose to suffer about (health, reputation, wealth, etc.) We need to learn to let go of the things we cannot control and learn how to move on.
What You Can Control
So what do we focus on if almost everything outside of us is out of our control? We focus on the way we perceive the world. We concentrate on the way we treat others and how we act. You know you can’t control how others behave, but you know you can control how you behave. Whether or not in the morning you decide to be nice to the barista at the coffee shop or you decide to be mean. Whether you choose to take on new exciting opportunities or you choose to hide away from the world. Whether or not you see a rainy day as a tragedy or an opportunity to gleefully jump in the puddles. Your thoughts and actions are what you have control over, not how the world reacts to them.
The power of knowing what you can and cannot control is that it gives you more energy and productivity. Instead of spending hours worrying, plotting, scheming, creeping people on social media or manipulating others — you have all that time and energy into making positive choices in life. You can instead take up new hobbies, read a book or invest in any other self-improvement path you find interesting. You will also feel so much ‘lighter’ without the circular negative thinking about trying to control everything.
Although Marcus Aurelius ruled nearly two-thousand years ago, his wisdom is still applicable today. You can find a list of his best quotes here, or listen for free to his audio books on Youtube, along with other famous Stoic teachers such as Epictetus and Seneca.