Marcus Aurelius - Timeless Wisdom


Marcus Aurelius, as I’m sure you’ve heard the name, was a Roman emperor from 161-180AD. He was known as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire. However, more than this, Marcus Aurelius is widely considered as one of the greatest philosophers to ever have lived.

Marcus Aurelius was born into a fairly regular family within the upper class of Roman Society. Admittedly when I say ‘regular’ it’s important to note his birth was still of enormous privilege when compared to the rest of society at this time. However, despite this, nobody would have predicted that he would one day inherit the great Roman Empire which in turn would make him the most powerful man alive.

Growing up, Marcus was a very serious boy who enjoyed to wrestle, hunt and box. And it was around his teenage years in which the question of succession drew closer towards him. When the reigning emperor Hadrian was nearing death and childless, he picked his successor Lucius Ceionius, who himself died unexpectedly choosing Antoninus, a senator, to succeed him. In accordance with Hadrian’s condition, Antoninus who was also childless had to adopt Marcus as well as Ceionius’ son, Lucius. After the eventual death of Hadrian in 138AD, it became clear that Marcus was next in line to succeed. Subsequently, the education of Marcus became a serious priority and as result of his newfound importance he was able to study under the rhetorician from Athens, Herodes Atticus, in addition to serving as a consul multiple times.

In 161AD, following the death of Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius became the Emperor of the great Roman Empire. Aurelius would go on to rule for two decades until his death in 181AD. Throughout his rule he faced serious threats from every angle. This included the continuous incursions of barbarian tribes along the Northern border, wars with the ever-ambitious Parthian Empire, combating the rise of Christianity and the survival of the plague which killed many thousands. Naturally, Marcus’ feats in warfare and politics were enough for him to be considered as a ‘good’ emperor. However, what separates Aurelius from the rest of the ‘good’ emperors were not his Bravery within conflict nor his political leadership. Instead, Marcus is hailed for his insights into the nature of life and more specifically the philosophy of stoicism which guided him throughout his reign.

Stoicism was born in the early 3rd century BC by Zeno of Citium and is considered a school of Hellenistic philosophy. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. Stoic’s focus on developing the skill of clear and unbiased thinking which allows the self to understand the universal reason (or logos). Building on the framework laid down by previous stoics, Rusticus and Epictetus, Marcus would spend his reign avoiding the corruptive lure of power and instead sought to develop his understanding of himself, others and ultimately the world he lived in. The gravity of Marcus’ power during this time is easily underestimated. Absolutely nothing of desire would be off limits, yet Marcus remained uncorrupted even in the face of the greatest of temptations.

During the last 10 years of his reign, where Marcus spent most of his time campaigning against foreign invaders, he wrote a series of ‘books’ or diary entries which served as a personal documentation of his thoughts on existence. Its passages varied in length and topic with entries ranging from perspectives on death to insights on pain, desire, pleasure, time, emotions and many rules to live a virtuous life. These entries would survive almost two millennia and are now known as his ‘meditations’. Perhaps you have heard of this book? It is now considered a foundational work for philosophy. The entries made by Marcus were never intended to be read by anyone, least of all to be mass published. Nevertheless, the value of his thoughts remains timeless. Considered as required reading for some of the greatest figures alive today, his work is enshrined in the Modern Library of the world’s best books.

On a personal level, I have derived profound meaning from this book. Marcus often references the inevitability of death whilst recognising from on a broader scale, the limit of time we all have on earth. One of my favourite quotes on this point: 'None of us have much time. And yet you act as if things were eternal-the way you fear and long for them... Before long, darkness. And whoever buries you mourned in their turn.' At first, I found this notion dark and overly gloomy. However, the more I considered it, the more I appreciated the profundity in this viewpoint. The inevitability of death in my opinion is liberating.

Another viewpoint I found deeply powerful were his perspectives on time. Marcus notes in book 1: 'The present is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don't have?'. This idea which Is intrinsically linked to mindfulness regards the fact that we as humans can only truly suffer in the present moment. Yet despite this, we seem to be drawn to thoughts of the past or future (which against our control) distort our perspective of the present moment. But why do we do this? Surely, we know we cannot change what has happened in the past and why worry about the future when it is surely unknown to us of its contents? Admittedly nobody (or at least the non-enlightened amongst us) can control our thoughts fully, nevertheless armed with this perspective I believe the internal suffering of the mind I can be greatly limited.

There is no doubt Marcus Aurelius and his work ‘meditations’ represents an enormously valuable piece of literary history. The principles of philosophy and the great insights are truly invaluable to ones personal development and therefore should be considered mandatory reading (in my opinion). Naturally, a feeling of imposter syndrome arises when I attempt to deconstruct the significance of this work. Nevertheless, please let my personal takeaways from the book inspire you to read it for yourself. Especially after the year 2020 we could all do with some Stoic wisdom to empower us.

Enjoy reading my favourite quotes from ‘mediations’:

1. 'The present is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don't have?'

2. 'Your ability to control your thoughts-treat it with respect. Its all that protects your mind from false perceptions-false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It;s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.'

3. 'That every event is the right one. Look closely and you'll see. Not just the right one overall, but right. As if someone had weighed it out with scales.'

4. 'Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.'

5. 'Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow... Now recognise that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.'

6. 'If an action or utterance is appropriate, then its appropriate for you. Don't be put off by other people's comments and criticism. If it's right to say or do it, then it's the right thing for you to do or say.'

7. 'Existence flows past us like a river: the "what" is in constant flux, the "why" has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what's right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us- a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.'

8. 'Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.'

9. 'Don't be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you've been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?'

10. 'Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What's closer to nature's heart? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Cant you see? It's just the same with you-and just as vital to nature.'

11. 'To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.'

12. 'Pain in neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don't magnify them in your imagination. And keep in mind too that pain often comes in disguise-as drowsiness, fever, loss of appetite... When you're bothered by things like that, remind yourself: "I'm giving in to pain".

13. 'No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.'

14. 'If they've made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can't do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.'

15. 'None of us have much time. And yet you act as if things were eternal-the way you fear and long for them... Before long, darkness. And whoever buries you mourned in their turn.'

16. 'We need to master the art of acquiescence. We need to pay attention to our impulses, making sure they don't go unmoderated, that they benefit others, that they're worthy of us. We need to steer clear of desire in nay from and not try to avoid what's beyond our control'.

17. 'We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.'

18. 'Practice even what seems impossible. The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice. But it guides the reins better than the right. From practice.'

19. 'At all times, look at the thing itself-the thing behind the appearance-and unpack it by analysis: Cause, Substance, Purpose and The length of time it exists.'

20. 'To be angry at something means you've forgotten: That everything that happens is natural, That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.'

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