Marcus Aurelius is the Man

He’s one of history’s “good guys.” By day the emperor of Rome, commander of armies, and conqueror of barbarian nations, by night a Stoic philosopher, at all times a pursuant of virtue. He kept a private journal, which we now know as the “Meditations.” He kept a record of his inmost thoughts, written in Greek during his military campaigns. He is not addressing anyone other than himself, which makes his words seem very intimate and oddly comforting. He is probably one of the friendliest of the ancients that I know.

“Very soon you will be dead; but even yet you are not single-minded, not above disquiet, not yet unapprehensive of harm from without, not yet charitable to all men, not persuaded that to do justly is the only wisdom.” (Book 4, section 37, translation by Maxwell Staniforth).

“Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes in sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along, only to be swept away in turn.” (4. 43)

“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…” (4.49)

“Do not be distressed, do not despond or give up in despair, if now and again practice falls short of precept. Return to the attack after each failure, and be thankful if on the whole you can acquit yourself in the majority of cases as a man should…” (5. 9)

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” (8.47)

“O soul of mind, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder, more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh? Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting, craving nothing, yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company? When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their fare of that perfect living Whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things…?” (10.1)

He wrote these words nearly two thousand years ago, but they have the familiar sound of the discordant song of human existence, the “still, sad music of humanity.” He struggles with the same ills we do, and seeks the consolation of philosophy. It’s somehow comforting to know that even someone as distant and imperious as Marcus Aurelius had a humble view of himself, and spoke similar words to himself as we do today. He was a human being, it shouldn’t surprise us, but for some reason it does. Take comfort in the internal struggle: Marcus Aurelius struggled too.

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