“Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts” — Marcus Aurelius
Narcissus by Michelangelo Caravaggio, c. 1597 (detail) (source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain).
Doctors and nutritionists often say to us: “you are what you eat”. It’s the best nutritional advice you can get because it’s pretty much true.
There are 50–70 million cells in your body and every one of them is replaced. If we don’t consume enough nourishing food our skin changes colour, our gums bleed, our bones soften, we lose hair, we feel fatigued and become more susceptible to disease. If you eat junk, you’ll feel like junk.
The same could be said of our minds. If we preoccupy ourselves with junk thoughts, our character will become sick. Just as in the case with food, the information we consume determines what and how we think.
One of the most memorable philosophical phrases to me is from Marcus Aurelius:
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts.”
I love this quote because it’s both a self-admonishment and a description of the mind. The mind is not just an empty container that is filled with information, it is the generator of character (what Marcus calls the “soul”).
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. His journals, published after his death and known to us as The Meditations, detail his philosophical thoughts against the backdrop of the daily struggle of being an emperor.
A Rational Leader
Some of you may double-take at that last sentence. What’s hard about being an emperor? We have a popular perception of Roman emperors living decadent lives of luxury.
The reality for Marcus was far from this. The Emperor reigned at a time of constant defensive war. Germanic tribes and Sarmatians were marauding the empire in the north and the Parthians invaded from the east. Marcus spent a great portion of his reign at the front line of warfare far from the luxuries of Rome, leading his troops in person.
These conflicts were among a series of calamities that struck the empire. Soldiers returning from the east brought a plague (probably Smallpox) that swept across the empire. The plague likely killed Marcus’s co-ruler Lucius Verus and perhaps later killed Marcus himself.
Marcus’s reign was also threatened by a plot that almost escalated into civil war. Emperors had to constantly be on guard against plots as well as the instability of court politics, surrounded as they were by ambitious sycophants and scheming enemies.
The average reign of a Roman Emperor was short. Many were murdered by people supposed to serve them. It was a life of immense responsibility and pressure.
Marcus was the right emperor for Rome at such a troubled time. He is renowned as a philosopher in his own right and as one of the five supposedly “good emperors” that Niccolò Machiavelli, the great political philosopher, believed led Rome with a steady hand.
These Emperors, according to Machiavelli, were “defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the Senate.”
The steady hand of a great leader is in fact a steady mind. Marcus was grounded in a philosophical tradition inherited from his ancestors. His adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian, took a keen interest in rhetoric and philosophy.
Despite all the luxury and temptation around him, Marcus is said to have lived the simple life of a philosopher from a young age. He wore “rough” cloaks and sometimes slept on the floor.
The Roman aristocracy adopted Stoicism but Marcus was also acquainted with Platonism and Socrates, as well as the Sophists and the Epicurean school. While some emperors banned philosophy and banished philosophers, Marcus allowed libraries and philosophical schools to flourish.
Roman leaders often fell as a result of manic greed and hubris even in times of peace. We think of greedy Nero as a wretched ruler and Marcus as honourable. Marcus has been heralded as an exemplary ruler largely thanks to his discipline for good thinking.
So what are “good” thoughts? How can we make a value judgement on what we think?
As a Stoic, Marcus prized reason above all else. In the Ancient world, philosophy wasn’t the specialist (and often overly technical) discipline it has become in the modern world. Philosophy literally means affection for knowledge/wisdom. It is self-reflective or contemplative thought that helps us become better people and find peace of mind. Through philosophy, we can become better citizens, friends, siblings, parents or lovers.
This was certainly the aim of the ancient schools, particularly Stoicism. The Stoics believed that healthy human beings have an intrinsic capacity to reason that is unique to us. The practice of reason ensures that we fulfil our oikeiôsis, which is roughly translated as the “orientation” or “belonging” of a species. By using reason, we understand that we must cooperate to live a better life.
Marcus wrote, “A rational being’s good is community. It has long been shown that we were born for community.”
The way of the Stoic is to live in accordance with nature, reason must be prized above all else, since the universe is governed by the laws of reason according to Stoic tradition and human beings’ natural propensity is to reason. The universe is rational and human beings’ rational nature reflects the order of things.
Marcus wrote: “Honour that which is greatest in the world — that on whose business all things are employed and by whom they are governed. And honour what is greatest in yourself: the part that shares its nature with that power. All things — in you as well — are employed about its business, and your life is governed by it.”
For the Stoics, rational thinking – devoting oneself to virtue and the values of community and civic duty – was the good that reflected the order of the “logos” or reason that governs the universe.
Emotions for the Stoics are judgements and therefore cognitive. When we stray from reason, we are making false judgements. Greed, for example, is a false judgement about the intrinsic value of money or possessions. Anger and jealousy are false judgements of our relationships.
Our desire for possessions that we don’t really need is a false judgement spiralling almost beyond our control.
The Discipline to Think Clearly
The modern world is a poor seedbed for clear thinking. Those of us who live in towns and cities are bombarded on a daily basis with information that seeks to warp the value judgements we make.
The whole point of marketing is to make us irrational. Adverts tempt us to buy things we don’t really need by appealing to our desire to be popular or sexually attractive. The media that these adverts pay for carry stories of the rich and famous, people supposedly happy because of their fame and wealth or unhappy because they might lose it.
Television, magazines and newspapers bombard us with irrelevant stories that stimulate our basest instincts. Even quality news media has become more sensationalist as they fiercely compete for viewers in a globalised information economy. This is all to make us consume more information that is worthless to the aspects of our lives that really matter.
The average person in America, according to Statista estimates, spends 3.35 hours watching television a day. That’s almost a day per week of just television and not other forms of screen time.
Of course some television is good, but for the most part it’s bad. When we habitually watch TV for hours on end we sit still while our senses are bombarded with sensationalist news, pointless entertainment shows and adverts designed to stoke our desire for things we probably don’t need.
Not only is our precious time on earth evaporating, our capacity to make sound judgements is being atrophied. The modern world must be met with a discipline to maintain a healthy mind. Groucho Marx said, “I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”
Not everybody will sign up to the quasi-religious beliefs of the Stoics, but it’s clear that our thinking is best spent on improving ourselves. Thoughts that are preoccupied with envy, fear, shame or greed will cloud our judgements and make life harder, not easier, for us.
The next time you are tempted to switch on the television, take up Groucho Marx’s advice and pick up a good book instead. Good books like Marcus’s Meditations edify the mind and build character.
Mastery of life itself comes from reason, from contemplative thoughts rather than rash judgements. Our faculty to reason is a muscle we ought to exercise regularly to ensure we lead a life of happiness and excellence.