"Waste No More Time Arguing What a Good Man Should Be. Be One." -Marcus Aurelius

Updated March 3, 2023

Do you ever feel like you spend most of your time thinking and discussing how you could improve your life but never actually taking action? You might find inspiration in this powerful Marcus Aurelius quote- "Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one."

A part of what is so compelling about this quote is that Aurelius wasn't giving orders to someone else- these words are found in his personal journals that he wrote without any intention of publishing. Let's take a deep dive into what this quote means and how you can use it to become a better person and live a better life.

“Waste No More Time Arguing What a Good Man Should Be. Be One.”

This famous quote by Marcus Aurelius gets right to the point of what it means to live a good life. While we might see ourselves a certain way, it isn’t what we think or say that defines our character. What defines our character is what we do.

Before we get too deep into analyzing this quote, let’s take a quick look at the wide variety of ways the original Koine Greek words of Marcus Aurelius have been translated.

There are a number of different translations of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This means that “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” is only one iteration of the quote. Here are some of the other translations of the same passage from Book 10, section 16:

Spend your time no longer, in discoursing on what are the qualities of the good-man; but in actually being such.

– Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor

To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.

– Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Gregory Hays

Don’t any more discuss at large what the good man is like, but be good.

– Marcus Aurelius, Translated by A. S. L. Farqueharson

Make it not any longer a matter of dispute or discourse, what are the signs and proprieties of a good man, but really and actually to be such.

– Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Meric Casaubon

No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.

– Marcus Aurelius, Translated by George Long

Lose no more time disputing about the definition of a good man, but endeavor yourself to be one.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Richard Graves

You can see why the to-the-point translation of “waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” is one of the more popular iterations of Aurelius’ idea.

It’s far easier to talk the talk rather than walk the walk. Everywhere we look in our society, there are people telling others how they should live or what they need to change to be a good person. What people do not seem to be doing much of is looking at themselves– considering whether they are actually putting their ideas into practice in their daily lives.

We can discuss our lofty ideas for better society and what a utopian world would look like. We can complain about other people and how they cause the world’s problems. At the end of the day, though, the only person we have the power to change is ourselves.

Stoicism as a Practical Philosophy

When we think of philosophy, we often think about dusty books in an old library and heady ideas that have nothing to do with the mundane reality of our day-to-day lives.

This might be the case with many philosophical ideas– they float so far above the surface of the ground that they are completely uninterpretable from the standpoint of just being a person trying to get through your life.


"Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it."

– Epictetus

One of the great things about Stoicism is that it’s a practical philosophy that you can apply daily. You can use it when you’re deciding how to use your time and what you want to do with your life. You can use it when determining how to respond to a situation and analyzing how you feel about your life circumstances.

Stoicism is a philosophy you can use to improve your life and become the person you want to be. It’s a philosophy you can use to achieve your goals and determine what matters most to you in life.

Though the ideas in Stoicism are very straightforward and easy to understand, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to be a Stoic. Our culture values creature comforts, instant gratification, and a victim mentality, all of which are certainly not valued from a Stoic perspective.

"The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things."

– Epictetus

Instead, you take responsibility for what you have control over and learn to accept the things you can’t control. You work to live virtuously in all of your thoughts and actions, the four Stoic virtues being wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. You value the truth over your ego or fitting in.

When you work to live a Stoic life, you see obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow. You don’t see yourself as a victim when something “bad” happens to you; rather, you see it as a necessary occurrence.

“Constant misfortune brings this one blessing: to whom it assails, it eventually fortifies.”

– Seneca the Younger

You might wonder if the Stoic philosophers practiced what they preached. Did they tell others to apply these concepts to their lives while never actually living this way themselves?

"All philosophy lies in two words, sustain and abstain."

– Epictetus

Well, Marcus Aurelius was the empire of Rome at a time when it was the most powerful entity in the entire world. His Meditations were never intended to be published but were instead his own journals that he used as he worked to live and lead virtuously. Cato showed true bravery in his defense of the Roman Republic up until his death– a death that turned him into a martyr and symbol of the Republic.

Though Epictetus taught philosophy in his later life, he spent his youth as a slave. Cleanthes worked to support himself as a water carrier during the night so he could study philosophy during the day.

If you are eager to be a good person, as Marcus Aurelius states here, but you’re not sure where to begin, the philosophical ideas of Stoicism are a good place to begin.

The Great Debate About What It Means to Be a Good Person

Hearing a quote like this might inspire you to tap into what you already know you need to do and connect your thoughts with your actions.

On the other hand, though, it might leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed. Maybe you haven’t lost much time discussing what it means to be good. Maybe you feel like you have no idea what it would mean to be a good person right now.

For the latter camp, let’s take a look at some of the other things that Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics have to say about being a good person.

What It Means to Be a Good Person According to Marcus Aurelius

In this section, we’ll explore some of the things that Marcus Aurelius states to make a person good by taking a closer look at some direct quotes from Meditations.

In summary, though, the major ideas we encounter are that a good person:

  • Accepts, loves, and embraces his fate
  • Speaks only the truth
  • Does only what is just
  • Doesn’t allow other peoples’ mistrust to distract them from his path
  • Is contented with what he has and what has been granted to him
  • Makes good use of what he has and what has been granted to him
  • Doesn’t seek attention for his actions
  • Applies goodness in everything he does
  • Creates his own good fortune through good acts, good habits of the soul, and good intentions
  • Is so clearly honest and good that it is apparent to anyone around him

"...the defining characteristic of the good person is to love and embrace whatever happens to him along his thread of fate; and not to pollute the divinity which is seated within his breast, or trouble it with a welter of confused impressions, but to preserve its constant favour, in proper allegiance to god, saying only what is true, doing only what is just.

And if all people mistrust him, for living a simple, decent, and cheerful life, he has no quarrel with any of them, and no diversion from the road which leads to the final goal of his life: to this he must come pure, at peace, ready to depart, in unforced harmony with his fate."

– Marcus Aurelius

In this quote, Marcus Aurelius argues that amor fati is the defining characteristic of a good person. The good person embraces whatever happens to him, only speaks the truth, and only does what is just.

Recognizing that this type of character could draw the ire or criticism of others, he goes on to say that what other people think will not distract him from his path to a virtuous and good life.

“He who is discontented with what he has, and with what has been granted to him by fortune, is one who is ignorant of the art of living, but he who bears that in a noble spirit, and makes reasonable use of all that comes from it, deserves to be regarded as a good man.” 

– Marcus Aurelius

“A man when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season.”

– Marcus Aurelius

marcus aurelius image and quote about being a good person

“Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Goodness—what defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do.” 

– Marcus Aurelius

“The truly fortunate person has created his own good fortune through good habits of the soul, good intentions, and good actions.” 

– Marcus Aurelius

“In short, the straightforward and good person should be like a smelly goat—you know when they are in the room with you.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“The honest and good man ought to be exactly like a man who smells strong, so that the bystander as soon as he comes near him must smell whether he choose or not.”

– Marcus Aurelius

What It Means to Be a Good Person According to Epictetus

Epictetus offers his own perspective on what it means to be a good person in several of his works. Ever concerned with how a person chooses to take control over the things they have control over, he believed that using reason to exercise choice is one of the hallmarks of a good person. Beyond that, he argues that a good person never does something to get credit or boost their reputation but instead does so because they know it is the right thing to do.

Here are some of the major themes about what it means to be good, as found in the writings of Epictetus. To him, a good person:

  • Only takes action because it is right and never for appearances
  • It is defined by how he exercises his choice
  • Uses what is peculiar to man, which is the reason
  • Responds to impressions the way nature intended– i.e., agree to what is true, disagree with what is not true, and withhold judgment when it’s unclear what is true; desire what is good, reject what is bad, and be indifferent to everything else.

Now, let's look at a collection of quotes that outline Epictetus' view of what it means to be truly good.

epictetus image and quote about being a good person

“Know you not that a good man does nothing for appearance sake, but for the sake of having done right?” 

– Epictetus

“A good person is invincible, for they don’t rush into contests in which they aren’t the strongest. If you want their property, take it—take also their staff, profession, and body. But you will never compel what they set out for, nor trap them in what they would avoid. For the only contest the good person enters is that of their own reasoned choice. How can such a person not be invincible?”

– Epictetus

“The Body is the raw material of the doctor and physical therapist. Land is the farmer’s raw material. The raw material of the Good Man is His Mind, His Goal being to respond to impressions the way nature intended.

As a general rule, nature designed The Mind to assent to what is true, dissent from what is false, and suspend judgement in doubtful cases. Similarly, it conditioned the mind to desire what is good, to reject what is bad, and to regard with indifference what is neither one or the other.”

– Epictetus

“The good of man, and likewise his ill, lies in how he exercises his choice, while everything else is nothing to us,” 

– Epictetus

“There are three things in which a man ought to exercise himself who would be wise and good. The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that a man may not fail to get what he desires, and that he may not fall into that which he does not desire. The second concerns the movements (toward an object) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what a man ought to do, that he may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgment, and generally it concerns the assents. Of these topics the chief and the most urgent is that which relates to the affects [i.e., the Discipline of Desire]; for an affect is produced in no other way than by a failing to obtain that which a man desires or falling into that which a man would wish to avoid. This is that which brings in perturbations, disorders, bad fortune, misfortunes, sorrows, lamentations, and envy; that which makes men envious and jealous; and by these causes we are unable even to listen to the precepts of reason.”

– Epictetus

“What then is peculiar to man? Reason. When this is right and has reached perfection, man's felicity is complete. Hence, if everything is praiseworthy and has arrived at the end intended by its nature, when it has brought its peculiar good to perfection, and if man's peculiar good is reason; then, if a man has brought his reason to perfection, he is praiseworthy and has readied the end suited to his nature. This perfect reason is called virtue, and is likewise that which is honourable.” 

– Epictetus

“You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.” 

– Epictetus

What It Means to Be a Good Person According to Seneca the Younger

So, what does Seneca the Younger have to say about being a good person?

One of the points that Seneca makes is that we can't just assume that we will be good by accident. Since virtue is the only good, a good person is a virtuous person. According to him, virtue is something that we have to learn rather than something we inherently have.

Additionally, he talks about the importance of accepting one's circumstances and seeking opportunities in them rather than complaining.

Here's a breakdown of some of the most important points about what it means to be a good person, according to Seneca:

  • Deliberately works to be virtuous and isn’t virtuous by chance
  • He is never busy for the sake of it and doesn’t waste his time
  • Doesn’t complain about their circumstances and instead accepts them and utilizes any opportunities in them
  • Acts honorably no matter the circumstances

seneca image and quote about being a good man

“A good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy.” 

– Seneca the Younger

“No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us. We are all tied to Fortune, some by a loose and golden chain, and others by a tight one of baser metal: but what does it matter? We are all held in the same captivity, and those who have bound others are themselves in bonds - unless you think perhaps that the left-hand chain is lighter. One man is bound by high office, another by wealth; good birth weighs down some, and a humble origin others; some bow under the rule of other men and some under their own; some are restricted to one place by exile, others by priesthoods: all life is a servitude."

– Seneca the Younger

“No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt.” 

– Seneca the Younger

So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it.” 

– Seneca the Younger

seneca image and quote about being a good person

“Nothing deters a good man from doing what is honorable.”

– Seneca the Younger

The Enemies of Action

There are a lot of different monsters that can get in the way of being action-oriented. Whether you're a chronic procrastinator or a perfectionist, it's time to confront some of the enemies of action to ensure you're actively working toward being the best person you can be.

You might have the most incredible ideas in the world, but this doesn't mean anything if you don't actually translate them into actionable steps. As Jane Austin famously wrote in Sense and Sensibility, "it isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do."

Having good intentions simply isn't enough in this world. Thinking about improving yourself and becoming a better person won't make it so. If you're really committed to transforming your life and living virtuously, you'll likely need to confront one of the enemies of action.


Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle had a word to describe when people act against their better judgment because of being weak-willed– akrasia.

We are all guilty of procrastination from time to time, but we rarely think of it in these terms. When we delay or postpone something that we know we need to do, we act against our better judgment. We are not being strong-willed.

It’s easy to get excited about becoming a better person, but when we do so, we frequently are making plans for our future selves. We think about how we’re going to start an ambitious new workout plan tomorrow or how we’re going to devote more time to our true interests in life once we have a certain amount of money in our savings account.

We can think about how good we’ll become down the road, but remember– the future never gets here. All we have is a finite string of present moments. If you want to start being a good person, the journey starts right now.


Another enemy of action is perfectionism. We expect that when we do something, it needs to be done precisely right the first time. In reality, though, this mindset simply keeps us from doing the work that is necessary to even begin to think about perfection.

“We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.”

 - Epictetus

If you want to be a better person, if you want to be a good person, you just have to start from where you are.

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: It snatches away each day as it comes and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today…The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live immediately.”

— Seneca the Younger

There is a famous quote that is often attributed to Teddy Roosevelt or Arthur Ashe but appears to actually be the words of Squire Bill Widener, whom Roosevelt quotes (and gives proper credit to) in his autobiography:

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.

Roosevelt states that this “sums up one’s duty in life.” Stop dreaming about the day when you’ll have enough money or time to be the person you want to be. Just start where you are and see where it takes you.


Related to perfectionism is the unpleasant habit of overthinking things. It’s easy to get caught up in being uncertain about what the right thing to do is. This can apply to the largest questions of life (who should I marry, where should I live, what should I do) and to the tiniest questions (what should I eat for dinner, what should I wear today.)

Overthinking is another one of the enemies of action. If you find yourself with cycling thoughts, you're probably spending a lot of time and energy in your head rather than simply starting to get stuff done.

If you’re guilty of this, check out our list of books to stop overthinking things.


It’s easy to be lazy in our modern world. We can drive to work or take the bus. We can order takeout or heat up a frozen dinner. We can plop down on the couch and be fed content through your platform of choice.

We’re so used to our lives of comfort that we rarely think about how much is done for us. Machines wash our clothes and our dishes, and our refrigerator and freezer save us time from salting and preserving our food.

Even though so many of the tasks of life are dealt with for us these days, we don’t seem to inherently put our extra time to good use.

If we want to be better people, it means taking time every day to practice habits that we feel support our larger goals and our personal growth.  Whether this means starting a journal, meditating, keeping our house clean, or taking daily walks, it's amazing how much of a difference a collection of good habits can make.

Thinking You Already Have All the Answers

Once we've got enough life experience under our belt, we might think that we've got it all figured out. Epictetus has some good advice for those of us that feel this way, though:

"What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows."

– Epictetus

If we want to be good people that lead lives of virtue, we have to always remain open to the notion that we might have more to learn. No matter how right we think we are, there are always going to be situations in life that surprise us. However, we won't be able to receive a valuable lesson if we think we already know everything we need to know.

You Can Work to Be a Good Person, Right Now

It's tempting to think that we have to figure everything out before we can really fulfill our true potential. We might be hesitant to take action before we feel that we have a full handle on the right way to think, talk, and act.

Unfortunately, though, there's a good chance you're never going to feel like you have it all figured out. Life has an odd way of opening up new questions for us to tackle as soon as we feel like we've sorted another problem out.

Instead of endlessly fixating on what it would mean to be good, take the advice of Marcus Aurelius and just do it. We're all going to make mistakes, no matter how right we think we are at the time. The point is to forge forward, pay attention, and- when we do make errors- learn from our mistakes.

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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