A male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler – this is how Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor of centuries past described himself in his Meditations. This written work of his is perhaps the only source of information which lets us examine the man behind the shining veneer of authority, and know his beliefs, his ideals and his philosophies. To know a little bit about his legend, how he was much more than just an Emperor, and a man to emulate. A scholar by the name of Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as perhaps the most beautiful figure in history. Another scholar, G. M. A. Grube has said that this work reflects his strangeness, that is, his discernable and unique outlook towards life, even as an Emperor, his nobility and sadness.
From a philosophical point of view, Marcus’ views on life and death are very diverse, like a tapestry dyed a hundred colours. The range and honesty of Marcus’ reflections on human life and death in the perspective of eternity – doubt and despair, conviction and exaltation all equally intense, have enduring power to challenge, encourage or console. All this is founded on a strong moral commitment, the philosophical conviction of the unity of all things, and a firm belief in God and man being one.
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic and also stoic. By that it should be construed that he followed the Stoic school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd Century BC. As a Stoic, he used logic to build his own innate system of personal ethics, and understood that happiness for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. He did not believe in excesses, or rhetoric, or the material pleasures of life. This is understood plainly by his passage in his Meditations:
“…To avoid empty enthusiasms; to disbelieve all that is talked by miracle-mongers and quacks about incantations, exorcism of demons, and the like; not to hold quail-fights or be excited by such sports; to tolerate plain speaking; to have an affinity for philosophy, and to attend the lectures first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; to write essays from a young age; to love the camp-bed, the hide blanket, and all else involved in the Greek training.”
When Marcus was writing his Meditations, which he originally titled To Himself, he wasn’t writing it for any kind of audience. The Meditations were solely written by and for himself. The writings include reproaches to himself as an Emperor, and they are crisp, short and succinct, to the point that they are sometimes a bit too straightforward. But then, that was always Marcus’ intention.
This inner retreat is his fortress, his sanctum sanctorum, and the Meditations are our way to understand what is stowed away in this sanctum. He is very detached from worldly concerns when he writes his Meditations, and this detachment extends to the point of contempt for his own good deeds as Emperor, when he says:
“A king’s lot: to do good and be damned.”7. 36, The Meditations.
Such clarity as to what really mattered to him in his life is something which was exemplary, and we should take encouragement from this fact, to try and be a bit like him – the person, not the Emperor. Because in Marcus’ mind, the mind always trumped everything else. He had to be a human being first, then a statesman, a Roman, a ruler.
Image Source: James Clear
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