What a Roman Emperor can teach us today
Some of you here may have had a fleeting interest in Roman history at some time. Some of you here may even have a decent understanding of how the empire rose and fall. Despite this, I doubt you are aware of the incredible thinker that was not only a philosopher but one of the 'Good Emperors'. Not a bad life.
This man is Marcus Aurelius and I would argue has some of the finest literature the ancient world produced. Yes, I believe that not only is it on par with other writers such as Plato and Homer, but could potentially surpass it.
Aurelius delivered his thoughts in a form that you likely haven't experienced before, that is, a diary written to nobody but himself. He himself discredited the power of his thoughts, and it is lucky we are left with this text known simply as 'meditations'.
The writing in the books focuses on the emperor's struggle to master his own person, ridding himself of any vice, attempting to be left with only virtue. It is indeed a noble struggle and it is written over a long period of time, which I believe makes it all the more incredible.
Think for a moment where, just under 2000 years ago, these words could have been conceived. The is every chance that he was contemplating the fleeting nature of life after witnessing a battle, to praising the virtue of his ancestors while standing in a temple dedicated to them. I find myself awestruck by these possibilities and if you are able to hold these thoughts in your mind while reading 'Meditations', I assure you the pleasure of reading it will be greatly enhanced.
'Meditations' is very much the first ever Stoic text, and it has some absolutely perfect quotes to help anybody get through their day. Again, it is a text focused on a personal philosophy rather than anything metaphysical. Here are 10 of my favourite quotes from the insightful:
To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.
What injures the hive injures the bee. (This quote is especially relevant for Aurelius, because, you know, he runs the hive).
Indifference to external events. And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.
Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.
The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.
Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.
Your three components: body, breath, mind. Two are yours in trust; to the third alone you have clear title.
Be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.
Of course, not every single part of this book is going to be relevant, nevertheless there is a plethora of wisdom still to be had.
If you wish to undertake the reading of 'Meditations', I recommend doing it over a fairly long period. I don't see it as a book to binge read- like any philosophical text of course. Instead, aim for just a few pages each day, and really think about what you have just read. Put yourself in his position, trust me, it will make for a different, albeit incredible, reading experience.
Wisdom never ages, and 'Meditations' is the embodiment of this. If you choose to read it I am sure you will agree.