Evan Thomas, in his incisive and humanizing biography of Richard Nixon, asks a penetrating question: How many great men of history were truly self-aware? Nixon surely wasn’t. Bill Clinton, caught red-handed—or rather, blue-dressed—philandering in the White House, surely wasn’t either. All one has to do is watch the video from his grand jury testimony, where he sought to litigate the definition of the word “is,” for evidence of that fact.
Few presidents have been self-aware. In a way, the job selects against it: The kind of person who thinks they deserve to be the most powerful person in the country—or in the world—isn’t usually the one who stops and thinks critically about themselves.
Marcus Aurelius had a little bit of an advantage. He didn’t exactly choose to be emperor. It was thrust upon him. He knew he was a regular person—not a god—and this allowed him to escape what he called imperialization, being changed by the office. And still, Marcus, like all of us, struggled with self-awareness. Surely his trusted advisors talked privately amongst themselves about his flaws, and had to try to work around his ego, or convince him not to react emotionally or personally to things, in order to do what was best for the empire.
The battle for self-awareness is an endless one. The ability to step back and see yourself from a distance, to analyze your own flaws and weaknesses, to understand your own motivations? This is not only not easy, it’s basically not natural. We were given—cursed with—all sorts of biases and blind spots that work against self-knowledge on a daily basis.
Yet we must continue to aim for self-awareness, at knowing ourselves as fully as possible. Nixon’s lack of self-awareness might have helped him become president, but it also cut his second term painfully short. Marcus undermined his own legacy with his persecution of the Christians and his helplessness when it came to choosing a successor. And so will we destroy ourselves and undermine our own legacy if we are not always working to understand ourselves better, to question our biases, and to look at ourselves...objectively.