Marcus Aurelius’ guide to becoming a morning person

Ever had trouble finding reason to get out of bed? Marcus Aurelius has some advice for you.

The great Alec Guinness playing emperor Marcus Aurelius in the film 'The Fall of the Roman Empire', 1964.

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
  • Getting up in the morning stinks.
  • Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher King of Rome, even had to write advice on getting up in his masterpiece Meditations.
  • While the advice might not make you a fully fledged morning person, it might make getting up just a little easier.

Let's be real, mornings can suck. Beds can be cozy, alarms can be irritating, and the idea of going to work can sound like a call to go on a death march. This is nothing new; people have been complaining about mornings since they invented writing. However, the amount of thought put into the subject may surprise you. No less a philosopher than Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, dedicated part of his work Meditations to it.

Even the king of the world had trouble getting out of bed

Written as a series of notes to himself, Meditations has been held in high acclaim for its practical wisdom, accessibility, and dedication to Stoic ideas. One section focuses on the struggle known to king and commoner alike:

"In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?

- But this is more pleasant.-

Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?

- But it is necessary to take rest also.-

It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?"

Aurelius gets it. We can be tired in the morning, and the work we need to get up and do can be dull, dreary, and draining. However, get up we must, and then we have to be productive. Like other parts of the book, this section is written as a guide to help motivate its author to do the right thing which in this case is getting up so that he can go run the world.

How does this relate to Stoicism?

This is an excellent example of several important ideas in Stoic thought.

Stoic philosophy maintains that virtue, the most important thing, is acquired by living in accordance with nature. We can see in the above paragraphs that Aurelius continually reminds himself of how getting out of bed and going to work is part of human life and that he, therefore, ought to do it.

The Stoics believed that the universe was guided by a divine reason which permeates the entire universe. The universe and this reason are seen as being self-coherent and mostly deterministic. Everything in the universe has a nature, which is part of that self-coherent whole. For the world to function properly, everything must live up to its nature. If you don't, you'll not only lack virtue, but you'll probably be unhappy too.

So while you might be cozy if you stay in bed, the long run results are less pleasant.

Aurelius also refers to "loving" his nature and himself a few times. This is related to one of the higher goals of Stoicism. While most of us can't shrug off everything that happens to us and often curse random events, a rare few can put themselves entirely in tune with the divine reason and not only endure everything that happens, but fully understand why it had to happen and why it was good. These people were dubbed "sages."

According to the French philosopher Pierre Hadot, the perfect sage would be one who "could, at each moment and definitively, make his reason coincide with that universal Reason which is the Sage that thinks and produces the world." The sage, like that reason, intensely wishes for each moment to happen as it does, as it has to. They are in tune with their nature, love it, and live in accordance with it even when it would be nice to stay in bed.

Marcus Aurelius expands on this idea in another section of the book, speaking as a lover of fate who is trying to view whatever the world throws at him as good or necessary:

"All that is in accord with you is in accord with me, O world! Nothing which occurs at the right time for you comes too soon or too late for me. All that your seasons produce, O Nature, is fruit for me. It is from you that all things come: all things are within you, and all things move toward you."

Despite this, he knew he was not a sage and that he would have to remind himself why he needed to get out of bed from time to time.

That is, perhaps, the most essential part of this section. It is written as a note to himself with the understanding that the author isn't perfect and references the objections he'll raise. Stoicism was designed to be a very practical philosophy; it was devised to help people understand the world, how they relate to it, and how they should live in it. While it might not be able to answer the most abstract of theoretical questions that are discussed today, it can help you go about the business of living well.

We can all learn from the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and his method of becoming a little more comfortable with getting up in the morning. While we might not all be able to become sages or even as close to one as he was, perhaps we might all take comfort in knowing that even he needed a little help getting out of bed in the morning as we struggle to do it ourselves.

Try to remember that next time you really don't want to get up in the morning.

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