The nature of human desire makes most of us perpetually wanting. We want more money, bigger homes, excellent cars, better relationships, perfect health, prestigious jobs, etc. This constant state of wanting things to be different than they are leads to chronic dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Even when we get what we want, the satisfaction quickly fades, and we’re on to enjoying the next thing.
In the 2nd century AD, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius recognized this tendency and advised a different approach – accepting rather than wanting. He taught us to take life as it is rather than wish it was different. We can find contentment and calm by focusing on what’s within our control and letting go of the rest.
Marcus Aurelius knew a thing or two about handling hardship with grace. As emperor, he faced enormous challenges: Stop Wanting, Start Accepting: The Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, including war, famine, and disease epidemics. Stoic philosophy helped him endure these struggles and rule with wisdom and humility. Today, his teachings can help us face life’s inevitable difficulties with steadfastness and tranquility.
In our modern consumer culture of seeking happiness through material possessions, Aurelius’ advice to find peace through acceptance rather than wanting is more relevant than ever. We could all benefit from applying his core tenet – be satisfied with each present moment rather than hoping for fulfillment in the future.
The Problem of Wanting
That shiny new phone, the designer clothes, the luxury car, the huge house, the high-paying job title – our consumer culture continually convinces us these external things will make us happy. Marcus Aurelius recognized that no matter how much we acquire, it’s never enough. We always want more. Our desires constantly outpace our reality.
This tendency is part of human nature, but Aurelius teaches it is the root cause of much unhappiness and anguish. When we don’t get what we want, we feel disturbed, frustrated, defeated. Yet even when we do get it, the satisfaction quickly fades, and we’re on to chasing the next thing.
Marcus Aurelius advised focusing on what’s in our control and letting go of the rest. Do what’s required with wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage as best you can. Then, accept the outcome without judgment. Don’t waste energy on wishing things were different. Just flow with life as it unfolds.
Aurelius said, “If you seek tranquility, do less. Or do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.” In other words, stick to necessities, do them well, and be satisfied. Don’t get caught up wanting more.
Henry David Thoreau
The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived a simple life at Walden Pond in the 1840s. Thoreau intentionally pared down his possessions to focus on nature, self-reliance, and truth. He was happy with little, embodying Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy of wanting less.
Thoreau wrote in Walden, “My greatest skill has been to want but little… I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men.” He recognized that possessions tend to control us more than we hold them, keeping us trapped in never-ending cycles of wanting more.
Rather than chasing status, money, and luxuries, Thoreau was content with his tiny cabin in the woods. His days were spent writing, gardening, receiving guests, and immersed in nature’s beauty. Instead of wanting more, he appreciated what each day brought.
Thoreau wrote, “I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another… We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” This exemplifies Aurelius’ mindset of acceptance over wanting.
By paring down his needs and not constantly wanting, Thoreau achieved a tranquility of mind few can replicate in our modern consumer society. His chosen life of minimalism enabled him to focus on the present rather than chasing some imaginary future fulfillment.
The Buddha also embodied Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy of letting go of wanting and finding peace through acceptance. After living a lavish princely lifestyle, the Buddha realized material comforts did not guarantee happiness. At 29, he renounced his privileged life to seek spiritual enlightenment.
After six years of meditating, fasting, and living in poverty, the Buddha achieved nirvana – a state of liberation, inner peace, and wisdom. His teachings formed the foundation of Buddhism, which focuses on eliminating suffering caused by unhealthy attachments and desires.
The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism states: “The end of craving leads to the end of suffering.” This aligns with Marcus Aurelius’ advice to stop chasing desires which leave us dissatisfied. Happiness comes not from wanting more but from accepting and appreciating what we have.
The Benefits of Acceptance
Embracing Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy of accepting rather than wanting profoundly benefits those willing to practice this ancient wisdom. By focusing on what’s in our control and not becoming disturbed about the rest, we gain several advantages:
- Calmness of mind – Not tying happiness to getting what we want eliminates constant frustration when desires aren’t met. Acceptance allows us to maintain an even keel through life’s ups and downs.
- Gratitude – Accepting the present moment makes us more grateful for what we have rather than unhappy about what we lack. Even small joys become occasions for thankfulness.
- Wisdom – Acceptance helps us recognize what truly matters. We stop wasting energy on superficial wants and focus on meaningful aspects of life.
- Self-discipline – Acceptance enables us to make choices aligned with our values rather than chasing momentary pleasures. We have the discipline to do what’s right rather than what we crave.
- Resilience – Hard times will come; it’s inevitable. Acceptance allows us to endure difficulties with grace while wanting to amplify suffering. Marcus Aurelius proved the power of this resilience as Roman emperor.
- Serenity – Acceptance cultivates an inner peace not easily shaken by external events. Our emotional state becomes more dependent on our mindset than fluctuating circumstances.
By practicing acceptance, as advised by Marcus Aurelius, we become less dependent on getting what we want to be happy. We create space for appreciating the present gifts rather than fixating on desires. This ancient wisdom remains highly relevant today for finding fulfillment.
The sage guidance of Marcus Aurelius on wanting versus accepting is invaluable for modern seekers of the good life. Our natural tendency to always want more and more – whether material possessions, status, power, pleasures, or any other shiny objects of desire – is ultimately a roadblock to happiness. Aurelius recognized that chasing these external things we think will satisfy us only leads to endless frustration.
Examples like Henry David Thoreau and Buddha demonstrate how embracing acceptance and wanting less creates tranquility of mind and spirit. Their simple lives freed them from the shackles of endless pursuit and craving. Thoreau found happiness in his little cabin at Walden Pond by appreciating nature’s daily gifts. The Buddha’s teachings to eliminate attachment and follow a middle path led him to nirvana.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are as practical and profound today as 1800 years ago. We may not become emperors, monks, or forest dwellers, but adopting Aurelius’ philosophy brings significant rewards. Fewer distractions from chasing desires, more presence in the moment, deep wisdom on life’s priorities, and resilience in challenging times are within reach if we stop wanting and start accepting.