Updated: Oct 14, 2020
After spending some time in Ancient Greece with Aristotle, we now travel to Rome, Italy, at the end of the second century AD, to learn from the great emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire from 161 AD- 180 AD. Known as the “Philosopher-King,” and considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” Aurelius spent the majority of his time ruling away on campaign, fighting wars on the outskirts of his territory.
He wrote Meditations, a collection of journal entries, in the last decade of his life. Now one of the great works of Stoicism, this text was never intended for publication. These were the words he wrote to himself, in his private hours, to best avoid the trappings of prestige. The text, along with the letters of Seneca and the works of Epictetus, are the bulk of the works of Stoicism, the philosophy of an austere life spent in accordance with reason, mastering one’s self.
Filled with wisdom and practical advice on how to live with virtue, Marcus’s greatest lesson came not through his writing but through the way in which he lived. To understand the work, we must understand the times.
In the late second century AD, Rome was the center of the universe. This is before the time of space travel, satellites, and the perspective this brings. This was almost 1400 years before Copernicus proposed that the earth was not the center of the universe. This was a time when the religion of Rome was Polytheistic, celebrating gods such as Jupiter and Neptune (Zeus and Poseidon being their Greek counterparts).
Marcus Aurelius was the world’s most powerful man deified upon his death, and yet his private thoughts radiate a humble simplicity:
“Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye, for it does happen. Keep yourself therefore, simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Reverence the gods, save men. Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighborly acts.”
Had Marcus Aurelius been prideful, he would be justified in being so–his power, wealth, and reputation would pacify the souls of most men. Yet, with every worldly success, he fought to maintain a clear understanding of his place in relation to the greater whole, remembering that all is fleeting and great men are soon forgotten.
It’s easy for a thirty year old without a family or mortgage to live the Stoic life. Its quite another when a Roman Emperor does so with thirteen kids (only five of which outliving their father) while authoring the most popular work of Stoic philosophy. Again, we see that the true philosopher is not one who understands philosophy, but lives it.
Our first post will discuss the necessity of retreating into one’s self to become impervious to outer turmoil.
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