The French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan observed what an extraordinary challenge Marcus Aurelius’ tutors and guardians faced. How could they possibly raise and train a boy to be good…when just a few years in the future lay such unlimited power and wealth. “Judging from ordinary analogies,” Renan writes of the fact that so many leaders throughout history have spiraled into corruption, the expectations should have been for ”the worst possible results.”
So how did his guardians succeed? “The simple explanation,” Renan gives, “is that above those masters summoned from all the ends of the earth, Marcus had a unique master whom he reverenced above all the others, Antoninus.”
In short, Marcus was the exception to the rule that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” because he lived every day like, his step-father, Antoninus Pius. Antoninus’ self-discipline, his attention, his duty to care—they rubbed off on Marcus Aurelius.
In Ryan Holiday’s new book Discipline is Destiny, he explores how Antoninus didn’t just tell Marcus how to live and lead. He showed him. As Marcus details in the first book of Meditations, Antoninus showed him the importance of compassion, hard work, persistence, and cheerfulness. He showed him how to keep an open mind and to listen to anyone who could contribute, how not to play favorites, how to take responsibility and blame, and how to put other people at ease. Marcus learned how to yield the floor to experts and use their advice, how to respect tradition, how to keep a good schedule, how to be moderate with the empire’s treasury, and never get worked up. He learned how to be indifferent to superficial honors and to treat people as they deserved to be treated.
Well guess what? We can give this to our kids too. In fact, we owe it to them. We have to give them the beautiful model of a good life, as Renan wrote. We have to inspire them. We have to show them what they’re capable of being…by being our very best. Even when we’re tired. Even when we’re tempted. Even when they are acting out and being more than we can handle in the moment. Our kids likely don’t face the specter of unlimited power and wealth falling into their hands before they’re old enough to rent a car, but what they do face is a future with unlimited distraction and temptation and opportunity to take wrong turns down paths that are hard to return from. Our job is to show them the right path by walking it before them.