The majority of literature from the ancient world is decidedly impersonal, but there are a few works that stand out to illustrate just how similar the people of the past were to us today.
One such person was Marcus Aurelius, the sixteenth emperor of Rome, known for being the last of the “Five Good Emperors” and for his interest in philosophy. His famous work, the Meditations, is considered one of the most important surviving texts in Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy that instructs its students to remain calm and rational in all situations, to make the best out of your situation in life, and to do your duty by helping those around you. However, even today, the book serves as a dense yet characteristic testament to the human condition.
The Meditations was not organized like a normal book or philosophical text. In fact, reading Meditations can be a little dry and repetitive, unless you’re interested in becoming a modern-day Stoic! Aurelius, as an educated person in ancient Rome, often reflected about the nature of the universe: whether it was made of “just” atoms or something more coherent, whether the gods had a hand in all events or everything was more or less randomly decided, and what the human role in the world is in relation to that of animals and the gods. This, however, is not a flaw, but reflective of the fact that it was written as a journal or diary for Aurelius, where he recorded his most personal thoughts, fears, and frustrations about life and dealing with others as one of, if not the most, powerful person in the world.
But beneath the layers of Stoic jargon and philosophizing lies the personality of a distinct individual–a quality that is often lost when reading about ancient times. The book reads with a consistent and familiar voice that makes the reader feel like they are well-acquainted with the Emperor by its closing chapter. Between the philosophical treatises about the workings of the universe, Marcus chastises himself about nearly everything, from his unwillingness to get out of bed in the morning…
- At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
—But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? […]
…to his fear of dying (since Stoics believed that you always retain full control of your mind and emotions, they considered letting them have influence over your mood and behavior to be irresponsible):
- Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements that split and recombine. Not an embarrassing thing. Not an offense to reason, or our nature.
- Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
- Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “to do what needs doing.”
…to his irritation about others’ bad odor:
- Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor.
—But they have a brain! Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem?
So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your logic to awaken his. Show him. Make him realize it. If he’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem. Without anger.
Marcus never revels in a melancholy stupor, despite his view of the world as impermanent, always changing, and never reliable (“Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born”). In fact, he seems to aspire to make a habit out of compassion for the fragile condition of the world, and even takes solace in the practice of helping others in an uncertain world.
Perhaps the greatest of Aurelius’s various preoccupations was about being remembered. He devotes many sections of the Meditations to trying to convince himself that trying to leave a lasting legacy is a futile and self-absorbed goal that distracts from the business of living with virtue. Isn’t it ironic that, although unintentionally, he is remembered to this day!
“People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. […] But suppose those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you? And I don’t just mean when you’re dead, but in your own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?”
“That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.”
Meditations, once again reflective of its role as a personal journal, ends without a satisfying conclusion, happy ending, or consoling footnote about whatever became of Marcus and his family. When I finished reading it, I thought it was tragic that he died without getting to finish off his work. But maybe the abrupt ending of Meditations fits well with its themes. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t, or at least he tried not to be, concerned with the time and date of his death, nor of making a show of it; all he wanted was to live a good life in the time being, be of use to others, and to “make [his] exit with grace.” Hopefully his exit was as graceful as any could be.
If you are interested in reading Meditations, I recommend the Modern Library edition translated by Gregory Hays, which is an accessible translation in modern English. There is also a free edition available on Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2680), but it is different than the one quoted here and was translated in 1634 to more archaic language.
Jay Forsythe is a dual-enrollment student at Valencia College's Lake Nona Campus. His main interest is to read about as many interesting things as he can while trying to pick a major.