(Painting: "Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People," by Jean-Marie Vien, 1765, oil on canvas)
My first impression of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was a negative one. He appeared in a list of emperors under whom the persecution of Christians had gone on. He was, in fact, the addressee of some of the most notable works of 2nd-century Christians (such as the First Apology of Justin Martyr), and yet he remained apparently unmoved by the social stigmas and occasional bouts of persecution which his Christian citizens had to bear.
But that first impression was only a secondhand account of the man. Meeting him again reinforced the importance of not judging a person merely by someone else's report of them. (This is a particularly important lesson for us as US citizens approaching an election year--too often we blithely accept the caricatures of candidates handed out to us by our favorite pundits, without actually doing any perusal of the candidate's own statements.)
It was a sunny day in Littleton, Colorado, and I had a few hours of free time between my studies, so I walked the path that traced around the old cemetery and then over to the public library. There I used to spend many a happy time browsing through their unending sale of used books, and picking out life-changing classics for the price of a quarter or two. One of those books was by Marcus Aurelius--his Meditations. I read it in the following weeks, and then read it again this year. It is, quite probably, the greatest "self-help" book of all time. It was written as a simple list of important moral points that Marcus himself wanted to remember, so it was, quite literally, self-help. And because of its informal style and outline structure, it also happens to be a good deal more accessible than most works of ancient philosophical wisdom.
Marcus Aurelius himself is one of the very best historical candidates to measure up to Plato's great ideal: "the philosopher king." Marcus was Roman emperor in the century where it reached the pinnacle of its territorial powers, and he himself helped in stabilizing its northern frontier. He was also a noted amateur philosopher, being an outspoken proponent of the most popular philosophical option of the day, Stoicism. (Of the other prevalent options, Platonism had long been in decline, though it was shortly to enjoy a renaissance, Aristotelianism had always been a minority school, and Epicureanism was the object of tremendously bad PR). Like all the others, this school of philosophy had its roots in the great Athenian teachers of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. If the name "Stoicism" doesn't strike you as all that appealing right off the bat, take care not to be fooled by our modern connotations. The Stoics were "stoic" in some of their attitudes toward emotiveness, but this stance was well-rooted in a coherent metaphysical sense of the universe and directed toward that great goal of modern soul-searching: finding peace. They were not Vulcans (though I do love Vulcans dearly), rather, they were concerned with the one great goal of true philosophy: how to live life well; and they were convinced that much of our failure on that point comes about because of the silly way we let our emotions run our lives. And, speaking at least for myself, I find myself very much in agreement with them. Stoicism has a great deal it could teach us today.
Marcus Aurelius' wisdom is a balm for our hyperactive 21st century individualism. It reminds us to go slow, to accept the course of events as coming from nature and from God, and not to hold too tightly to those things we have no control over. Though he himself was an emperor and a noted thinker, he tells us that fame doesn't matter at all. When we consider our own smallness and lack of discernment, what does it matter if other small and undiscerning creatures think we're the best thing ever? Most helpfully for me, Marcus Aurelius counsels us, over and over again, not to worry about things we cannot change. Since I've studied under his tutelage, I've begun to see this human instinct everywhere--we tie up our emotions into things that are entirely beyond our reach: a stretch of bad weather, the performance of a sports team, the way that a local culture irks us, the behavior of other people toward us, etc. But the trouble is, spending our time moodily obsessing about such things does no one any good, and to find peace we have to release those things and move toward an acceptance of the world around us as it is.
I'll close this post by letting the philosopher king speak a few nuggets of wisdom for himself:
"Is violence done you? Do no violence to yourself, my soul!" (2:6)
"Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives...The longest and the shortest thus come to the same....For the present is the only thing a man can lose." (2:14)
"Bear in mind also that every man lives only in the present, which is an indivisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or uncertain. Short then is the time which any man lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this is handed on by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who knew not even themselves, much less one who died long ago." (3:10)
"If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly...if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this." (3:12)
"Does another do me wrong? Let him look to it. The disposition was his and the activity was his." (5:25)
"Practice even the things you despair of accomplishing." (12:6)
"Wherever a man can live, there he can also live well." (5:16)