Medium: Three Sources of Joy in Stoicism

What did Marcus Aurelius say about our reasons to be cheerful?

Live your whole life through free from all constraint and with utmost joy in your heart… — Meditations, 7.68

Many people assume that ancient Stoic philosophers such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius were a grave and joyless lot. However, that’s a misconception. In fact, the Historia Augusta tells us that, despite his “serious and dignified” bearing as emperor, Marcus was “without gloom” and known for his pleasant and genial nature.

We can actually see direct evidence of this as the warmth of his affection for them truly shines forth in the private letters which survive between Marcus and his rhetoric tutor, and family friend, Fronto — such the charming letter Marcus sent Fronto on his birthday, for example. According to the historians, Marcus had a circle of long-standing friends who loved him very dearly, and based on his surviving correspondence that seems easy to imagine.

Marcus himself likewise refers to joy, cheerfulness, love, friendship, and other positive emotions throughout The Meditations, his notebook of personal philosophical reflections. He says, among other things, that he learned how to remain “cheerful when ill, or in the face of any other predicament”, from one of his Stoic mentors (1.5). Applying Stoicism to his own life, he tells himself to be unafraid of death and to meet his fate, not complaining, but “with a truly cheerful mind and grateful to the gods with all your heart” (2.3).

Elsewhere, he says that a good person is one who “loves and welcomes all that happens to him” and preserves the guardian spirit within him throughout life “in cheerful serenity, and following God” (3.16). Moreover, he does so by “living a simple, modest, and cheerful life”, free from anger, and accepting of his fate (3.16). Indeed, once he has grasped the right course of action in life he is to “follow it with a cheerful heart and never a backward glance” (10.12). So based on the evidence, Marcus was perceived as serious but never downcast by others, exhibited warmth and affection to his friends, and, in his private life, valued the cultivation of a cheerful philosophy of life.

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