Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was emperor of Rome from 161 AD until his death 19 years later. By the time he came to power, Rome was under threat: constant warring with 'barbarians' on the frontier, disease brought back by soldiers from the fronts, pestilence, and even earthquakes. Try to imagine the President of the United States being so philosophical in the midst of such crisis. Yet despite such circumstances, Marcus Aurelius would after his death come to be idealized by the Romans as the perfect emperor, a genuine philosopher-king who provided the last real nobility of rule before the savagery of his son Commodus's reign and the anarchy of the third century.
A student of the Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius refused to be made miserable by the difficulties of life. Stoicism was a Greek school of thought originating around 300 BC. In simple terms, it taught that submission to the law of the universe was how human beings should live, and emphasised duty, avoidance of pleasure, reason, and fearlessness of death. A Stoic would also have full responsibility for his actions, independence of mind, and pursue the greater good over their own. The emperor would have been comfortable with today's United Nations and other world bodies standing for co-operative effort - Stoics had an international outlook and believed in universal brotherhood. As well as the world, their thoughts spanned time, as this excerpt from the Meditations demonstrates:
All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as to the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer's words, they are 'lost to sight alike and hearsay'...To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin.
This was written over 21 centuries ago, yet its relevance somehow increases when we know how ancient it is. Marcus Aurelius's life itself bares the statement out; not many now will have cause to remember his skill or otherwise as a leader, but his Meditations, quiet thoughts written by camp light in the midst of campaigns, live on in hearts and minds.
The Meditations are alive with a perceptiveness of the basic unity of all things in the universe, including its people. They tell us that the effort to see with another's eyes is nothing less than an expansion of one's world - and a unifying of it. To despise, avoid or judge a person is simply an obstruction of Nature's law. The realisation that to move human relations to a higher level we must do the opposite of these things, formed the basis of the emperor's thought.
On every page of the book is this theme of accepting things and people how they are, not what we would like them to be. There is sadness in this view, as the following note from Marcus Aurelius suggests: 'You may break your heart, but men still go on as before.' One does get the impression of reading the thoughts of a lonely man, but then his ability to see life objectively saves him from any real disillusionment:
Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. 'How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!' By no means; say, rather, 'How lucky I am that this has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.
The great worth of the Stoic philosophy is its ability to help put things into perspective so you can remember the things that matter; the Meditations is, if you like, an ancient and noble Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. The person who can see the world as it really is also carries the ability to see beyond that world. Yes, we are here and we have a job to do, but there is the feeling that we came from another place, and will eventually go back to it. Life can be sad and lonely, one thing seemingly after another, but this should never dull the basic wonder at our existence in the universe:
Survey the circling stars, as though you yourself were mid-course with them. Often picture the changing and rechanging dance of the elements. Visions of this kind purge away the dross of our earth-bound life.
What can we make of the fact that Marcus Aurelius was the father of Commodus, whose accession and brutal reign broke the tradition of non-hereditary kingship? If the philosopher was such a great man, how could be have fathered such a brute?
The Meditations is not just another self-help book with easy answers - the very theme of it is imperfection. We can never know exactly why things happen, why people act the way they do, but it is not up to us to judge anyway; there is a larger meaning of events and lives which escapes us. This knowledge itself is a comfort.
A short book that is a source of sanity in a mad world, today's reader will also love the beauty of prose that makes the Meditations stand out against modern philosophical and self-help writings. Buy a copy and you will make use of it for life.
If you enjoy it, also read the Enchiridion by fellow Stoic Epictetus.
n.b. All quotes from 1995 Penguin edition. Translation by Maxwell Staniforth, 1964.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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