Investing in the Classics

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: On Stoicism – Part I

Please note that for the purposes of this analysis, I use the Gregory Hayes translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

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The Stoic tome Meditations (Medieval Greek: Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν Ta eis heauton, literally “[that which is] to himself”) is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on philosophy. Written in Greek, the preeminent language of philosophic discourse at the time, while on campaign between 170 and 180 CE, Meditations was not intended for publication as Marcus wanted it burned upon his death. The style and structure of the work is anything but meditative as the posthumous title is a misnomer, rather it is a collection of philosophic notes and quotes written down as imperatives and reminders to himself. Readers are also likely to be struck by the sense of melancholy and pathos that pervades through the work, which hints at how lonely and tired Marcus was, likely attributable to the relentless burden of ruling the Roman Empire that he endured. Nevertheless, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations stands as a literary monument to the Stoic philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict. I argue that investors today can learn much and more from the Meditations and from the Marcus Aurelius, the exemplar man that he was. In particular, I will focus on the Stoic themes of judgment, self-control, and duty in this analysis. In other words, how to act like the Stoic man.

 

Stoicism was in many ways the intellectual heir to Socratism, as such they thought that unhappiness and evil were the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature and man. They taught, as Marcus Aurelius did, that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of moral and intellectual perfection ought to have control over their emotions. They believed that it is the human condition to have troubles and worries, but the Stoic man should never worry about the things that one does not have control over. Only focus on controlling yourself; your mind, your intentions, and your will. If you do this, the Stoic’s argued, if you keep a well ordered and rational soul, then you will live a fulfilling and autonomous life. One can see why the Stoic life is attractive to the investor; it suppresses the domineering emotions, provides him a rational foundation to guide all actions, and liberates him from the conventional and social pressures of conformity.

 

Discipline of the emotions and focusing on only what you can control are central tenants of the Stoic man. Marcus Aurelius emphasizes as much, paying particular attention to point out the futility of desiring fame, reputation, and recognition by others. Beginning with fame and reputation, Marcus asks, “what is to be prized? An audience clapping? No… all that the public praise amounts to – a clacking of tongues… And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free – free, independent, imperturbable” (VI.16). Marcus bases the approval and applause of others to merely the clattering of tongues – a hollow and meaningless gesture. Moreover, he points out that if you value these things, as most individuals do (the celebrity-activists first and foremost), then you will never be autonomous as you will depend on others to validate your existence, as crowds demand conformity. Ignore the crowds, Marcus advises us. Autonomy is more valuable than reputation, which is fickle, frivolous, and fleeting.

 

Marcus Aurelius is perplexed by the vain individual, the one who seeks fame. “It never ceases to amaze me” he writes, that “we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own” (XII.4). Moreover, fame shouldn’t even be a consideration for the Stoic individual, as he elaborates elsewhere:

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us – how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space – and most of it uninhabited” (IV.3).

Marcus is apt to point out how insignificant reputation-seeking (in the vain way) is in the grand scheme of things. It is a hollow and arbitrary enterprise. To this latter point, elsewhere Marcus proposes that one ought “Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of — and how judiciously they judge themselves” (IX.18) and “When you face someone’s insults, hatred, whatever… look at his soul. Get inside him. Look at what sort of person he is. You’ll find you don’t need to strain to impress him” (IX.27). Similarly, investors today who are concerned with fame or merely validation from the crowds ought to contemplate what level of conformity must be sacrificed and whether or not these speculative, short-term condolences outweigh the virtue and prudence of the autonomous, long-term investor.

 

Marcus Aurelius reminds us how “So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone” (VII.6). Marcus enquirers: even amongst those whose fame has endured through his times, are they better than the Stoic individual? His verdict: “Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own. The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement” (VIII.3). The former group, driven by their ambition much like our celebrity-activists and other speculative types, lived unfulfilling lives, according to his assessment. On ambition, he writes “How their minds work, the things they long for and fear. Events like piles of sand, drift upon drift – each one soon hidden by the next” (VII.34). Ambition for the wrong reasons, not for self-improvement but out of vanity, is a fool’s paradise. Instead, Marcus advises us to focus only on what one can control, namely oneself. Marcus concludes, “The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do” (IV.18). Investors more concerned with glory than prudence are likely to find that they will not be investors for long.

 

The obverse of not caring for fame or reputation in the vain strain is to ignore the critics as well, another lesson Marcus Aurelius reminds himself many times through his work. In the Stoic edifice, the individual is not only responsible to controlling his actions but that of his attitudes as well. As such, the Stoic individual does not allow outside opinion or events to influence his perceptions of events or arose his emotions. Marcus teaches much of the same, for example:

“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. – Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine… It needs to realize that what happens – bad and good alike – is neither good nor bad” (IV.39).

Elsewhere, Marcus reiterates:

“Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature” (V.3).

The common denominator is the necessity of ignoring the crowds and doing what one is obligated to do by their principles, even if that means being a contrarian. Outside opinion cannot hurt you unless you allow it to. “Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harms – and you haven’t been” (IV.7) and “External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them” (VIII.47), he affirms. In quintessential Stoicism, nothing happens to be intrinsically good or bad, these are only attributes that we project onto these events. These attributes cause our joy and suffering, but they are not necessary and are only ephemeral. The Stoic investor focuses on his obligations and in carrying them out according to his principles, he or she does not concern themselves with the criticisms of the crowd.

 

Marcus Aurelius’ reminders to ignore the crowd and to maintain one’s principles is easy enough to grasp, but is much harder to carry out in deeds. “It can ruin your life” Marcus asserts, “only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you – inside or out” (IV.8). While reputation-seeking out of vanity is not the Stoic way of things, one’s self-derived integrity is of the utmost importance for both the Stoics and investors. Many investors find it hard to be uncompromising with their principles when they do not insulate themselves from the market noise, especially when prudence tells them to hold cash when the market is frothy. When one allows accolades and criticisms to alter their character, to let their guard down or otherwise engage in speculative acts, one will find their integrity as an investor compromised if not ruined. But Marcus reminds us that “above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose” (VII.22). So long as we have the ability to choose our own actions, criticisms can never faze us unless we allow them to. Thus, Marcus concludes: “Throw out your misperceptions and you’ll be fine. (And who’s stopping you from throwing them out?)” (XII.25).

 

In addition to ignoring the crowds, the Stoic individual needs to focus on only what they control, as has been hinted. Not only can you not control what others think or say about you (nor should you care), you also cannot control actions that are not your own. Recollecting a lesson from his first teacher, Marcus writes: “Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games… To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers” (I.5). The Stoic individual focuses on his own work and minds his own business. He cannot control the outcomes that are not directly derived from his actions. Elsewhere he reiterates this dictum: “You can hold your breath until you go blue, but they’ll still go on doing it” (VIII.4). Similarly, investors can find themselves frustrated when they focus on things outside of their control, such as interest rates or management decisions. Instead, “Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie” (IX.20), Marcus advises, “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own” (VII.71). The Stoic investor anticipates that others’ mistakes are inevitable and incorporates that into his margin of safety.  

 

By focusing on what we can control and ignoring that which we cannot, one acts in the most efficacious and salubrious way. Marcus writes: “Take the shortest route… to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension” (IV.51). The shortest route is the one uncluttered by distractions. By not pretending to understand or control those things that you cannot, you save yourself the fruitless labor and pain that would otherwise be wasted. “Everything you’re trying to reach — by taking the long way round — you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts” (XII.1), Marcus restates. This does not imply that you should ignore the unknowns. To the contrary, Marcus advises us to approach them in such a way that we do not let our emotions, wishes and desires to influence our judgment of those things we cannot control or our actions when they go against our expectations, like speculators and fans of sports teams are so apt to do. Marcus states, “Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions” (II.5). Additionally, “don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even small progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant” (IX.29). The common denominator is to focus on process and do not obsesses on the outcome, like great athletes and scientists, as a well-executed process bears its fruits in due time.

 

After establishing the basics of Stoic composure, Marcus Aurelius turns to the ‘for what’ of Stoicism, namely that of our duty. Recalling lessons he learned from his adopted father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, Marcus states:

“His constant devotion to the empire’s needs. His stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take responsibility – and blame – for both… The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds – games, building projects, distributions of money and so on – because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from it” (I.16).

Marcus expresses admiration for Antoninus adherence to duty and his willingness to take responsibility for his actions. Like Antoninus and Marcus, investors are stewards of capital and have duties as such. The Stoic investor and ought to be constantly devoted to performing his duty, but needs to be resolute in his stewardship of capital, prudently balancing opportunities with risk, elevating duty over self-interest.

 

The Stoic individual comes to understand his duty by fortifying with philosophy. Not philosophy as it exists today as an abstract academic discipline, but in the most ordinary and practical manner as it was in antiquity – as a set of principles which one adhered to guide everyday life.  Thus, Marcus asks:

“what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it” (II.17).

For Marcus, philosophy is a practical a set of principles that ought to guide every action, a point he makes literal later: “No random actions. None not based on underlying principles” (IV.2). Our principles ought to be free from unnecessary considerations, independent of our wants and wishes, and adhered to always and not just when it is convenient. Similarly for investors, no actions or investments not based on principles (otherwise known as speculations), as these are the most likely causes of ruin among investors, and if they succeed, it is because of luck.

 

Cogent thinking followed by actions focused in aim and method, unobstructed by exogenous and petty concerns. This is the Stoic way to act. The Stoic man is someone who adheres to his principles, he does not rely on Stoicism as a wayward would, as a mean to getting back on the right track. Writing of Claudius Maximus, Marcus admired “The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it” (I.15). Summarizing the Stoic way of acting, Marcus describes:

“How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought or misgivings. Don’t gussy up your thoughts. No surplus words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness. Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others. To stand up straight – not straightened” (III.5).

Act with purpose, consideration, and devotion. Have fortitude, vigor, and selflessness. Don’t act rashly or deceive yourself into false pretext. Don’t rely on the approval of others. Act with unwavering intention such that every action is excellent, not something to be corrected. These are the lessons of Marcus Aurelius. Investors would be wise to take note. Excellence in attitude produces excellent actions.  

 

Marcus Aurelius gave proof of his learning, recorded in his Meditations, not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his character and temperate way of life. He was perhaps the closest individual in antiquity or otherwise that approximated Plato’s philosopher-king. While it is certainly challenging to translate words into action, Stoicism teaches that any virtue that is accessible to any one human being is necessarily accessible to all human beings. And if Marcus Aurelius, who had every opportunity to be licentious as the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire, did his duty for over nineteen years without committing injustice or otherwise compromising his principles, than Stoic thought says we can too. Marcus Aurelius stands in reproach to our willingness to give excuses, to deny responsibility, to pity ourselves, to avoid our moral responsibility. Act the Stoic way; straight – not straightened.

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