These Simple Words Can Change How You Think About The Past (Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius)

These Simple Words Can Change How You Think About The Past (Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius)

The words of the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius continue to inspire readers two millennia later. His iconic journal Meditations compiles deep Stoic wisdom tackling an obstacle almost all of us face at times – painful rumination over the past.

Dwelling endlessly on bygone mistakes, embarrassments, conflicts, or losses serves little purpose beyond robbing our present-moment peace. Yet breaking free from regret’s stranglehold proves no easy task. “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind,” Aurelius wrote. Our thoughts build our reality.

“It is in Your Power to Let Go” – Aurelius on Dwelling

A seminal quote from Aurelius that encapsulates his teachings on letting go of the past states, “It is in your power to let go.” By this, he meant that we ultimately have a choice over whether we continue dwelling on issues from our past or not. Stoicism holds that while we cannot change what has happened, we have full authority over how we perceive and respond to it.

As Aurelius said, “Does what happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself?” Our negative judgments about the past need not obstruct our present virtues or purpose.

Letting go may be challenging, but Aurelius stressed that the payoff ends needless suffering. Staying emotionally attached to people/events that are already gone only robs us of peace in the present.

Four Key Ideas from Aurelius’s Meditations

Several impactful excerpts from Aurelius’ writings showcase his perspectives on coming to terms with the past:

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” He talks about forgiving others by refusing to perpetuate harm instead of wasting energy raging over past wounds.

“People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore…but this is altogether unphilosophical when you can retreat into yourself at any time”. Aurelius believed we have an incredible refuge within our minds whenever external circumstances feel beyond control.

“Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged.” This illustrates Aurelius’ take on subjective reality – we get distressed over past situations based on our judgments rather than anything intrinsic to the events themselves.

“Such as are your habitual thoughts; such also will be the character of your mind.” The most constructive changes start within our thought patterns.

Applying Stoic Teachings to Daily Life

So, how might adopting a more Stoic mindset help us cope with everyday dilemmas? Here are several techniques and examples:

When you agonize repeatedly over a failed relationship, an embarrassing incident from years ago, or even regretful choices from last week, try to halt the self-judgment spiral. Remind yourself that harsh rumination solves nothing and accepts events that are now in the past.

If you feel haunted by work presentation mishaps or heated clashes with friends/family, acknowledge the emotions but try not to perpetuate them. Consider whether there are any lessons to inform better responses in potential future cases.

When an unemployed person grows despondent over not landing jobs despite numerous attempts, suggest focusing energy on present areas of control – networking, skill-building, and mental health. What’s done is done, but much can still change going forward.

Overall, the basics of not remaining hostage to negative past experiences hold tremendous relevance in today’s fast-paced, hyperconnected lives. Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom will likely continue inspiring readers for centuries more!

Moving Forward with Purpose and Meaning

While the above examples demonstrate smaller applications of Stoic principles, Aurelius also extensively wrote about life’s purpose. He stressed that every human has a collective responsibility towards justice, duty, and the common good.

Despite his immense power as Roman emperor, Aurelius led by example – putting service towards something greater than himself at the center rather than self-glorification. He took obstacles and adversities in stride as part of the human journey, focusing energy on what he could control.

In escaping endless ruminations about past or present struggles, we can shift perspective to the positive impact we can have each day, however small. With purpose as the driving force, constructively moving forward emerges as the natural result.

Case Study: Overcoming Past Regrets

James is a 42-year-old sales manager who can’t seem to move past a job he turned down five years ago. The position was with a prestigious tech firm that became hugely successful, and he deeply regrets not accepting their offer. He thinks about how much, further along, he could be in his career and beats himself up endlessly about missing out on potentially millions in stock options.

This rumination causes James significant stress and anxiety daily – he has trouble sleeping. He finds it hard to focus at work as feelings of failure and missed potential consume him. He also unfairly takes out his inner turmoil on colleagues by being short-tempered and apathetic.

James decides to look into applying Stoic philosophy after reading the blog post on Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom. The teachings on not fixating on the unchangeable past and living purposefully in the present resonate deeply.

He starts practicing mindfulness techniques to halt his rumination spiral whenever thoughts about his past job arise. James also consciously tries to forgive himself for the decision by accepting it can’t be altered. He focuses on strengthening his current performance.

Additionally, James volunteers his sales expertise to mentor startup founders in his community, finding purpose in helping others succeed. By taking these steps guided by Marcus Aurelius’ advice, James slowly releases self-imposed suffering over his once-in-a-lifetime missed career opportunity. His mood, relationships, and work all improved tremendously from disengaging with the past.

Key Takeaways

  • The past cannot be altered, so emotionally dwelling on it is futile and causes more distress. Shift focus to the present.
  • Letting go of fixation on adverse past events or judgments is within your ability. It’s a choice to end needless suffering.
  • Core Stoic tenets like accepting obstacles with courage, seeking wisdom through self-reflection, and forgiving others are still hugely relevant for modern challenges.
  • Apply techniques like halting rumination spirals, finding lessons in failures, and redirecting energy to personal growth opportunities.
  • Discover your sense of purpose – what principles you stand for and how you can contribute each day to something larger than yourself.


Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius may have penned his iconic Meditations journal centuries ago, but the Stoic wisdom passed down still carries remarkable resonance today. By taking his age-old advice to heart – refusing to dwell on the unchangeable past and instead living purposefully in the present – we can shift our mindsets in incredibly empowering ways.

The next time you catch yourself endlessly rethinking previous mistakes, cooled friendships, professional mishaps, or societal downturns, remember Aurelius’ words. It is within your power to let go. Redirect your mental energy towards growth, justice, and duty right now. Apply Stoic teachings to find meaning and control amidst life’s chaos. Use these principles to transform how you relate to time altogether. Our lives stretch but a flicker – make the most of your moments.