It was on this day in the year 86 AD, that Antoninus Pius, the man who would become best known as the stepfather of Marcus Aurelius, was born. Most people, even followers of Stoicism, don’t know much about Antoninus. This is sad because he was a truly great man. “Antoninus would have had the reputation of being the best of sovereigns,” Joseph Ernest Renan writes, “if he had not designated for his successor a man equal to himself in goodness and in modesty.”
It’s worth taking a second today to consider what made him so special. Renan points out in his book The History of the Origins of Christianity:
“Antoninus was a philosopher without pretending to be so, and almost without knowing it. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher whose humanity and sincerity were admirable, but yet reflective. In this respect Antoninus was the greater. His kindness did not lead him to make mistakes. He was not tormented by the evil instincts which gnawed at the heart of his adopted son.”
Where Marcus was conscientious and self-conscious, Antoninus was effortlessly and naturally all the things that Marcus wished he could be, both as a philosopher and as a person. Antoninus did not need to hold in his temper like Marcus, as he did not have one. He did not need to meditate on his mortality, as he was always present and took nothing for granted. As Marcus wrote in the opening pages of Meditations:
“You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness–indomitable.”
What a man. What an example. Yet the truth is, most of us have no shot at that. We aren’t so naturally, effortlessly perfect at anything, really. We’re more like Marcus. We have the example of Antoninus to strive for but must work incredibly hard to get even halfway close. And you know what? That’s ok.
Because even if we fall short, even if we are not perfect, Antoninus would instinctively understand and appreciate our effort. He’d accept us unconditionally while still encouraging us to be better. Because that’s who he was. He may have ultimately been eclipsed by Marcus Aurelius in the annals history, but he was by no means less great.