Saturday, June 16, 2012

Think as a Roman Thought: Marcus Aurelius and Fitness, Part 1

According to the classicist Gregory Hays, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius “never thought of himself as a philosopher. He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy [Stoicism] developed by others.”1 Be that as it may, most scholars today regard Marcus Aurelius as an important Stoic philosopher, and I find his major work Meditations to be full of wisdom and interesting ideas. 

The most fitness-y image I could find.

Although Meditations contains very few direct references to physical fitness, I’ve noticed that several passages are relevant to this subject, particularly to one’s attitude about exercise. Take Book 6, number 48. Easy to understand, this passage is a good way to ease into Marcus Aurelius, though I should add that overall Meditations is much easier to understand than, say, Nietzsche or Hegel.  

“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.”2

Anyone serious about exercise has those killer workouts where some sort of encouragement is essential to prevent rebellion from aching muscles or exhausted lungs. The next time this happens to me, I’m going to try modifying Marcus Aurelius’s strategy and think of the qualities of exercisers I know, though they’ll only be “visibly embodied” in my mind’s eye.

Britt, I will think of your powerful muscles and your ability to use them throughout the day almost every day.
Bruce, I will think of your commitment to working to genuine failure every time you lift weights.
David, I will think of your remarkable constancy and adherence to your fitness goals.
Deb, I will think of your sensitivity to your body’s needs so that I don’t push myself to the point of recklessness.
Richard, I will think of your seemingly endless energy (and try to channel it from afar).

These are only a few of the people I know whose qualities impress me, but it’s a good start.

1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2004), vii.
2. Ibid, 71.


  1. loving your blog so far! are you going to explain its name?

    meditations is on my to-read list, but this post has inspired me to push it towards the top.

  2. Yes, read Meditations! I have a future post planned in which I will explain the name.