Friendship and the Stoic Character in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations Book 1 by Anthony Di Mento

In Book One of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius gives thanks to several people who have been edifying role-models or who have advanced aspects of Marcus’ education in some way. In doing this he reveals a lot about what is important to him. This suggests a line of inquiry into book one. Of all the possible things that he could have nominated, what does Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, have to be thankful for – what is important to him and what is he grappling with? The answer suggests a great deal about the person Marcus was or aspired to be.

This article looks at two particular areas that Marcus was thankful for and that were important to him.

The first area concerns the creation of character. Marcus recalls people who have displayed character traits that he is grateful to have observed, and which he himself appears to want to cultivate. A by-product of this exercise of giving thanks is that Marcus presents us with a catalogue of character traits and social qualities that a Stoic ought to strive to embody. From these traits and qualities it is possible to draw an outline of the “Stoic” character. This article sketches out a composite picture of the Stoic’s character as suggested by Marcus’ various observations in Book One.

The second area concerns friendships, and how to conduct and improve interpersonal interactions with others. These are central concerns for Marcus’ conception of the Stoic character and book one contain several insights into this topic. There is a human scale in Marcus’ reflection and inquiry regarding these interpersonal interactions- as opposed to an analysis of how to govern as an emperor or how to conduct a military campaign. This attention to how the Stoic conducts and improves friendships is part of what makes Marcus Aurelias, Emperor of Rome, such an affecting figure. This article draws out certain rules or guidelines concerning how to be a friend.

The Stoic Character

Much of Marcus’ reflection in Book One records his admiration for the temperament and demeanor of the people he names. Marcus is a keen observer of how people behave and how they express their character. While it is artificial to ascribe all of the identified characteristics to one person, a composite picture of a Stoic’s character taken from book one might look something like the following.

The Stoic is courteous, even-tempered and carries themselves with an unself-conscious dignity. All of their activities are done without ostentation. Their lifestyle is simple without the usual habits of the rich, and they perform duties energetically but without fanfare or fuss. They present with good cheer in all circumstances.

In decision making they are deliberate, methodical, decisive and consistent. They consider issues carefully and having come to a considered decision they proceed with a fixed purpose and in a calm and steady way.

They are plain speaking and when required they express approval quietly and undemonstratively. They are not prone to anger or jealousy and they are generally imperturbable and bear difficulties and setbacks with an emotional equanimity.

But, none of the above means that the Stoic is morose or despondent, or is a difficult person to relate to on a personal level. Instead, the quality of their interactions with others is an important and persistent concern for Marcus. The Stoic is generous, affable, gracious, kind, sympathetic, sincere and has an agreeable sense of humour. They are capable of being sanguine. There is an underlying empathy and care and concern for others. They are conscious of the emotions of others and are not harsh, blustering or unnecessarily critical in their dealings.

The result is a mature and finished personality. A Stoic will be recognisable for their strength of character and for their full and indomitable spirit.

How the Stoic is a Good Friend

The Stoic character discernible from book one is very aware of the importance of friendship and of broader social interactions. The Stoic is not looking to cultivate a solitary resilience. Instead, the aim is to fully occupy their place in society. To that end the Stoic’s interactions with friends and others are conducted with some care and attention. The Stoic implements approaches and practices intended to cultivate friendships and to foster courteous and mutually dignified social exchanges.

These approaches and practices can be considered as falling into two streams. One stream concerns the Stoic’s general temperament and demeanour. It can be reasonably accepted that the Stoic character summarised above is easy to get along with. Empathy and concern for others, along with the qualities of affability, graciousness, kindness, sympathy, sincerity, forgiveness, truthfulness and an agreeable sense of humour are all characteristics that are generally coveted in a friend. Sextus for example had an intuitive concern for his friends and an agreeable manner with all.

The second stream provides guidelines and rules about how to act with others. The guidelines, or rules of etiquette, found in book one can be grouped into the following topics of guidance.

First, avoid arrogance. The Stoic does not flaunt their knowledge or their status. They do not make others feel inferior and they are tolerant and courteous with everyone, whatever their social level and whatever their education level. Everyone is given their due. Arrogance is avoided, for example, by speaking plainly without speechifying or pretentious language and the Stoic does not parade their learning- they wear it lightly. Importantly though, a Stoic’s knowledge and their ultimate reliance on clear reasoning is always evident. It underlies all of their activities and decisions, but it never needs to be overtly deployed. The Stoic also makes themselves more approachable and avoids arrogance by their simple dress and lifestyle, without the usual displays of the rich.

Second, do not unnecessarily find fault (which is to some degree an attempt to appear superior). If the Stoic thinks they perceive an error, then they look for tactful, subtle ways to offer correction when the opportunity arises and they are patient when providing an explanation.

Third, remember others have their own pressures. The Stoic knows that others have their own demands and pressures and they accept without complaint that others may not always be available to meet. The ability to accept this is an instance of the Stoic’s core of self-belief and of their confidence in the affection of friends (more on this later).

Fourth, never be too busy. As mentioned above, the Stoic accepts without complaint that others may not always be available for them. But the Stoic does not adopt the converse of this rule in their favour. Only when strictly necessary (which is rarely), would the Stoic turn people away by saying “I am too busy.” The underlying reasoning is that no one should avoid or defer the duties obligations due to society on the excuse of urgent affairs. The very notion that we owe such social duties or obligations appears to be of central importance for Marcus. He is reminding himself about the obligation to make an effort with others regardless of whatever other inclinations he might have to avoid that contact. Perhaps Marcus perceives that this issue requires his particular attention given his special position. It is not hard to imagine that as emperor he could have easily avoided his duties and obligations (and pursued other interests) without having had to give any explanation or account of himself at all. Later emperors provide examples of this approach. Marcus is aware of the temptation and works against it.

Fifth, accept favours. Marcus thanks Apollonius for teaching him how to respond to the challenge (for some) of accepting favours. The particular quality of the favours he was concerned with has been variously translated as “pretended,” “apparent,” things that are “thought to be favours,” or just “favours”. The quality underlying the favour of course makes a difference. But it appears that in passage 8 Marcus is saying that the Stoic should receive favours without appearing compromised and without lowering self-respect. Nor should unfeeling indifference or insensitivity be evident in the acceptance or possible rejection of the favours.

Sixth, work at friendships. Relationships involve work. Marcus saw an example of this from Catulus who taught Marcus not to dismiss criticisms from friends even if unreasonable. In response to such criticisms the Stoic should work to restore or improve that friend’s opinion of them. This “leave no friends behind” approach underscores the importance the Stoic places on friendships- even in response to an unreasonable rebuke, the Stoic should make effort to restore the relationship. Arguably, this can only be done based on a recognition of, and a sense of duty around, the importance of human connection coupled with a forgiving and selfless approach to others.

Overall, the Stoic’s social dealings with others are conducted with courtesy, respect and patience. The Stoic is kind, sympathetic and sincere. The suggested etiquette to be applied towards friendships in combination with the Stoic’s general temperament and demeanour help them to be a good friend and citizen. It leads to enduring friendships that are not capricious or short-lived in a burst of extravagance.

Remarkably, Marcus’ discussion about friendships never descends into a judgmental examination about what to expect from others. It does not become a discussion about how to evaluate the worthiness, or otherwise, of friends. Nor is it a counsel about surrounding ourselves with “suitable” friends. They are taken as they are – without demands or expectations. Instead, the area of concern is internal to the Stoic. The explanation for this apparent magnanimity may be as simple as appreciating that Marcus is manifesting a clearsighted focus on the things that he can control. In contrast, the attitude and attributes of others, including friends, are outside his control (and are things that will at times be challenging to accept).

Confidence in the Affection of his Friends

None of the above-mentioned qualities come at the expense of self-respect and none diminish or undermine the Stoic’s own overall attitude and approach. So, the Stoic is forthright and speaks plainly in expressing his opinion, including criticism. Also, while they are on guard to ensure they do not make others feel inferior, this does not mean that others come to doubt the Stoic’s strength and abilities.

This maintenance of personal integrity links into a particularly insightful comment about friendships, being that the Stoic should have confidence in the affection of his friends. This confidence underpins the Stoic’s preservation of his personal integrity even while addressing the challenges of agreeableness. 

Initially, the insight seems to have an aspirational quality to it – confidence in any endeavor is usually something to continually strive for and is intermittently elusive (except perhaps for the self-deluded). But looked at another way, this confidence is eminently logical rather than aspirational. After all, if someone implements the etiquette practices and displays the sort of temperament referred to above, then they would have a sound rational basis for being confident about the affection of friends.

Furthermore, the suggestion that the Stoic should have confidence in the affection of others is itself very sound advice about how to be a good friend. In a sense it could be listed as a seventh item in the guidelines for conduct referred to above. A Stoic who embodies this confidence is not cloying or unctuous and avoids verging into the dreaded territory of being needy. Instead, they can graciously accept compliments without excessive shows of false modesty, and they can accept criticism without undue defensiveness or hurt feelings, and without feeling as though their fundamental identity has been attacked and that they are about to be cast out from the protection of the tribe. Similarly, they can provide their friends with meaningful compliments and constructive criticism (in the plain-speaking fashion referred to above).

Conclusion

An underlying message in Book One is that developing character is an active endeavor that requires, or at least benefits from, self-aware deliberation. Marcus undertakes a process of reviewing the character elements that he has observed in others and of identifying the traits that he values. He is undertaking a form of self-analysis regarding the life experiences that have influenced the psychological development of his personality and character.

As a result of Marcus’ exercise of delving into his origin story, we get to see a fairly detailed picture of what a Stoic character looks like. Some personality traits are firmly identifiable. The Stoic is not extravagant and not carless, and they are resilient and confident. However, there are some points of tension. So, while it is possible to detect a tendency to being solitary or reserved, this does not override the energetic approach to the performance of duties and obligations. At times Marcus appears to be willing himself to fulfill his obligations and duties- instead of resolving all such matters in his favour by deploying his powers as emperor. Similarly, while the Stoic has a strong tendency to critical thinking and methodical rationality, this is not imposed on others and nor is not at the expense of maintaining a friendly and sociable outlook.

But there are limits and the pursuit of agreeableness should not be at the expense of other core Stoic values. This comes out in the discussion about having confidence in the affection of your friends. The version of agreeableness or affability that the Stoic practices does not equate to simply trying to “fit in”. For example, the Stoic does not participate in the popular pastimes tacitly used as opportunities to form social bonds. Specifically, given the era, they are not interested in chariot racing or gladiatorial contests. The Stoic therefore avoids distorting or undermining their character and better judgment for the sake of being merely or superficially sociable. Importantly, the Stoic’s confidence gives each friend a chance to show the best qualities of their friendship (and perhaps to make mistakes).

Anthony Di Mento studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He has encountered Stoicism as an effective and salutary philosophy for life. Other current areas of study include economic systems and critical thinking skills. He lives and works as a pastry chef and lawyer in Sydney, Australia.

4 thoughts on Friendship and the Stoic Character in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations Book 1 by Anthony Di Mento

  1. Howard W. Cohen says:

    Thank you for presenting this for us. I think the German\Yiddish word for this is “Mensch”?

  2. David Speiser says:

    Clear, informative and very well written article. Will seek to integrate this wisdom, despite the obvious challenges. Thank you.

  3. barbara says:

    Kudos to the author for the good article and his many activities.

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