Startup Lessons from History: Marcus Aurelius

Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. It was erected in his lifetime, and miraculously still exists today almost 2000 years later. The real one is being restored in a museum, but the replica is equally impressive at 4m (13ft) tall.

Marcus Aurelius

“Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.”

“His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; to be brief, as a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a smoke, so are all that belong unto the soul.”

“Spend Not the Remnant of Thy Days in Thoughts and Fancies concerning other men, when it is not in relation to some common good, when by it thou art hindered from some other better work.”

“Let Nothing Be Done Rashly, and at Random, but All Things According to the most exact and perfect rules of art.”

“All these things, which now thou seest, shall within a very little while be changed, and be no more: and ever call to mind, how many changes and alterations in the world thou thyself hast already been an eyewitness of in thy time. This world is mere change, and this life, opinion.”

Emperors always issued coins with their faces on it, to remind the people of the empire who was in charge. Hard to forget when he’s in your pocket every day. This is Marcus Aurelius’ edition.

“In sum, remember this, that within a very little while, both thou and he shall both be dead, and after a little while more, not so much as your names and memories shall be remaining.”

“Let Opinion Be Taken Away, and No Man Will Think Himself Wronged.”

“Hast Thou Reason? I Have. Why Then Makest Thou Not Use of It? for if thy reason do her part, what more canst thou require?”

“Not as though Thou Hadst Thousands of Years to Live. Death Hangs over thee: whilst yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.”

“Doth the emerald become worse in itself, or more vile if it be not commended?”

Daniel Arsham’s modern 2009 sculpture of Marcus Aurelius in volcanic ash and crystal.

“For since it is so, that most of those things, which we either speak or do, are unnecessary; if a man shall cut them off, it must needs follow that he shall thereby gain much leisure, and save much trouble, and therefore at every action a man must privately by way of admonition suggest unto himself, What? may not this that now I go about, be of the number of unnecessary actions? Neither must he use himself to cut off actions only, but thoughts and imaginations also, that are unnecessary for so will unnecessary consequent actions the better be prevented and cut off.”

“To comprehend all in a few words, our life is short; we must endeavour to gain the present time with best discretion and justice. Use recreation with sobriety.”

“I am half naked, neither have I bread to eat, and yet I depart not from reason”

“Behold and Observe, What Is the State of Their Rational Part; and those that the world doth account wise, see what things they fly and are afraid of; and what things they hunt after.”

“What Art Thou, that Better and Divine part Excepted, but as Epictetus said well, a wretched soul, appointed to carry a carcass up and down?”

1789 painting by Hubert Robert showing the ruins of ancient Rome with the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the left. Were the following generations heading his words, do you think? Or were they busy with the medieval equivalent of Snapchat? Considering the dark ages, probably the latter.

“Thus must thou according to truth and nature, throughly consider how man’s life is but for a very moment of time, and so depart meek and contented: even as if a ripe olive falling should praise the ground that bare her, and give thanks to the tree that begat her.”

“Thou Must Be like a Promontory of the Sea, against Which though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands, and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted.”

“In the Morning when Thou Findest Thyself Unwilling to Rise, Consider with thyself presently, it is to go about a man’s work that I am stirred up. Am I then yet unwilling to go about that, for which I myself was born and brought forth into this world? Or was I made for this, to lay me down, and make much of myself in a warm bed”

“For this whatsoever it be, should not have been produced, had it not conduced to the good of the universe”

“What Is the Use that now at This Present I Make of My Soul?”

Mosaic from a villa which may have belonged to Marcus Aurelius. What do you suppose the Emperor would have thought walking past this image of a mythical Greek creature known as a lusty drunk? Probably a daily reminder to abstain from the pleasures and get stuff done.

“But we see contrariwise, that the more a man doth withdraw himself from these wherein external pomp and greatness doth consist, or any other like these; or the better he doth bear with the loss of these, the better he is accounted.”

“The Best Kind of Revenge Is, Not to Become like Unto Them.”

“This phalernum, this excellent highly commended wine, is but the bare juice of an ordinary grape. This purple robe, but sheep’s hairs, dyed with the blood of a shellfish. So for coitus, it is but the attrition of an ordinary base entrail, and the excretion of a little vile snivel, with a certain kind of convulsion: according to Hippocrates his opinion.”

“Do Not Ever Conceive Anything Impossible to Man, Which by Thee cannot, or not without much difficulty be effected; but whatsoever in general thou canst Conceive possible and proper unto any man, think that very possible unto thee also.”

“Alexander of Macedon, and He that Dressed His Mules, when once dead both came to one. For either they were both resumed into those original rational essences from whence all things in the world are propagated; or both after one fashion were scattered into atoms.”

The elderly Emperor portrayed by Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator. NOTE: His son didn’t actually kill him. The whole storyline with Maximus was fictitious. Commodus was a huge douchebag and play-gladiator, but was actually strangled to death by his servants in his sleep.

“Meditate often upon the connection of all things in the world; and upon the mutual relation that they have one unto another”

“The Ambitious Supposeth Another Man’s Act, Praise and Applause, to be his own happiness; the voluptuous his own sense and feeling; but he that is wise, his own action.”

“That Which Is Not Good for the Bee-Hive, Cannot Be Good for the bee.”

“Straight of Itself, Not Made Straight.”

“Is Any Man so Foolish as to Fear Change, to Which All Things that once were not owe their being?”

Plaque describing the honorable lineage of Marcus Aurelius at the base of his statue in Piazza Campidoglio, Rome.

“Thou Hast No Time nor Opportunity to Read. What Then? Hast Thou not time and opportunity to exercise thyself, not to wrong thyself; to strive against all carnal pleasures and pains, and to get the upper hand of them; to condemn honour and vainglory; and not only, not to be angry with them, whom towards thee thou doest find unsensible and unthankful; but also to have a care of them still, and of their welfare?”

“Forbear Henceforth to Complain of the Trouble of a Courtly Life, either in public before others, or in private by thyself.”

“But never did any honest virtuous man repent of the neglect or omission of any carnal pleasure: no carnal pleasure then is either good or profitable.”

“If It Were Thine Act and in Thine Own Power, Wouldest Thou Do it? If it were not, whom dost thy accuse? The atoms, or the Gods?”

“The same are the world’s elements, and the elements of which thou dost consist. And they when they are changed, they murmur not; why shouldest thou?”

The son was not improved upon his father.

“Receive Temporal Blessings without Ostentation, when They Are Sent and thou shalt be able to part with them with all readiness and facility when they are taken from thee again.”

“For in those things that properly belong unto the mind, she cannot be hindered by any man.”

“He that Knoweth Not What the World Is, Knoweth Not where He Himself is. And he that knoweth not what the world was made for, cannot possibly know either what are the qualities, or what is the nature of the world.”

“To Wipe Away Fancy, to Use Deliberation, to Quench Concupiscence, to keep the mind free to herself.”

1844 painting by the French artist Eugène Delacroix titled “Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius”, the old emperor is shown on the bed next to his son Commodus. His actual last words, spoken to his son, below.

“Look to the rising sun; for I am already setting”

Marcus Aurelius
121AD — 180AD

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Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.

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Aki Ranin

Aki Ranin

Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.

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