Confession time: I’m a huge Latin nerd. I studied the language for 6 years in middle and high school, have worn a toga on multiple occasion (and not even for frat parties!) often while quoting from The Aeneid or Catullus, and wrote a 25 page capstone paper in college on “Roman Women’s Economic Rights under the Empire.”
So it’s really about time I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) ruled during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire and exemplified the Greek ideal of a philosopher-king. He served as emperor from AD 161 until his death, leaving behind an impressive legacy even with the lack of clarity of his biographies. His most unwise choice perhaps was the appointment of son Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator, as his successor, which most historians point to as the start of the decline of the Roman empire.
Before reading, I thought that he had compiled this work for publication in his lifetime. The kind folks at Penguin disabused me of that notion in their foreword – apparently, these were his personal meditations to himself so that he could improve as a person and as a ruler. He wrestles with both spiritual and material issues, and his words proved to be inspiring and impactful to me as they have been to countless other intellectuals throughout history.
He’s an ancient and eloquent Emperor, so rather than paraphrasing his wisdom for y’all, I’ll just let him speak for himself:
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.” (Book 3, #4)
“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.” (Book 4, #3i)
“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. – Then where is hard to be found? In your capacity to see it.” (Book 4, #39)
“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?” (Book 5, #1)
“Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone-those that are now, and those to come…Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinitiy 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.” (Book 5, #23)
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” (Book 7, #71)
“‘And your profession?’ “Goodness.'” (Book 11, #5)
“Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: Not to do or say anything despicable.” (Book 11, #13)
“Throw out your misperceptions and you’ll be fine.” (Book 12, #25)