Marcus Aurelius’s father died when he was young. But then this young boy who was cursed by tragedy received a great gift, a gift that the children who have received it know to be one of the most incredible things in the world: he had a loving stepfather.
Ernest Renan wrote that Marcus was very much a product of his childhood influences. But more than his teachers and tutors, “Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus.” All his adult life, Marcus strived to be a disciple of his adopted step-father. While he lived, Marcus saw him, Renan said, as “the most beautiful model of a perfect life.”
What were the things that Marcus learned from Antoninus? In Marcus’s own words in Meditations, he learned the importance of:
– Hard work
– Constancy to friends
He also learned how to keep an open mind and 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. He 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. Antoninus taught Marcus how to know when to push something or someone and when to back off. He taught him to be indifferent to superficial honors and to treat people as they deserved to be treated.
It’s quite a list, isn’t it? Better still that the lessons were embodied in Antoninus’s actions rather than written on some tablet or scroll. There is no better way to learn than from a role model. There is no better way to judge our progress than in constant company with the person we would most like to be one day.
We are called to be the person you want them to be. Whether you’re a parent or a step-parent, your job is to embody the qualities you want them to embody. You can be that gift. An ancestor, as Springsteen said, someone who guides and protects them and helps them become who they are.