In Plato’s Republic there is a discussion about a make-believe land that would be ruled by what we would call a “philosopher king.” This king, while having great power, would rule fairly and humbly. He would hold his subjects to high standards, and hold himself to even higher standards.
I’m not sure that we’ve ever had a philosopher king as a ruler of any country, but if there was ever one, it was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who ruled from 161 A.D. to 180 A.D. What we know about his character does not come from someone who hated him or from a sycophant who wrote nice thing about him in order to gain money or political position. In Marcus Aurelius’ case we have his own writings – writings that were never meant to be shared with anyone.
Many years ago I spoke to a group about the Great Books Discussion Group I was in, and mentioned that we occasionally read and discussed writings such as early Greek plays. A young man asked why we would do that since they were so old and had nothing to do with life today. Some might say the same about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, but I assure you that nothing in human nature has changed since the time of the ancient Greeks or Marcus Aurelius. Only the locationss and stage props have changed.
Marcus was a stoic who lived a simple life. He was the last ruler during a period that is referred to as the Pax Romana – a time of relative peace in the Roman Empire. We think he wrote a diary of sorts during his campaigns to fight German tribes that were invading Roman lands, but we’re not sure exactly when or why.
I imagine him after a hard day of military action mixed with making decisions about matters of state. He is exhausted by his duties, and (being a thinker) needs time to process what has happened and how he handled himself that day. He goes to his tent, rests, and finally, before dropping off into a deep sleep, writes down his thoughts. There are certain ideas that are repeated throughout his Meditations. I suspect that these were issues that troubled him. He may have had to remind himself of what was important, and of how a benevolent ruler should act – even when surrounded by toadies and people who were cruel and ruthless. He also reminds himself that he should not take himself too seriously because he, like everyone else, will soon be forgotten.
We don’t know how his private writings became public, but at some point they did. Over the centuries his writings were copied and modified somewhat by scribes either accidentally or on purpose – it may have been both. Also, he wrote in Greek which was the preferred language of the educated Romans just as French became the language used by educated Russians much later.
At present we have numerous English translations of Marcus’ Meditations in English and, as you might expect, some translations flow better than others. A 2003 translation by Gregory Hays uses not only modern day English, but also some words and idioms that seem a bit out of place to me – such as “hypochondriac,” “at the top of his game,” and “with no loose ends.” However, this use of such makes Marcus’ thoughts more accessible to young people, so I have chosen it to share a few of his many ideas with you. Though these words were written over 1,800 years ago, you will, without a doubt, find something in them that will speak directly to you.
“Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it. Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live in is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.”
“. . . look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us—how capricious they are, how arbitrary.
“Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does—or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it? Or gold, or ivory or purple? Lyres? Flowers? Bushes?”
“Blind: (adj.) one who keeps the eyes of his mind shut tight.”
“Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding, unselfish action, truthful speech . . .”
“. . . People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat . . .”
“. . . What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.”
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do.”
“Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.”
There you have a few of the profound thoughts of a man who live long ago. I think you will agree that what he said is still relevant.
The introduction to Meditations, which is also by Gregory Hays, is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It is almost 50 pages long, and I found myself wishing it was longer.