Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) wrote Meditations towards the end of his life, and they might more aptly be called Letters to Self. They were never intended to be published much less read almost 2,000 years later. They are gnomic yet astoundingly timeless.
The writings, suspected to have been written over a decade, lack narrative yet present coherent Stoic thinking: keep an eye on the greater unknowable and reduce needless suffering through understanding and kindness.
Aurelius begins with humility (he under-describes himself as ‘a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler’) and gratitude – he thanks everyone who passed on knowledge or influenced his character. His mention of his adoptive father (his uncle by marriage and then his father) is particularly gracious:
From my [adoptive] father: gentleness, and an immovable adherence to decisions made after full consideration; no vain taste for so-called honours; stamina and perseverance; a ready ear for anyone with any proposal for the common good; to reward impartially, giving everyone their due…
The praise continues for several paragraphs. This self-knowledge (whether perceived or desired) as well as some of the particular traits he maintains he has – truth, realism, patience, and justice – made Aurelius a posthumous philosopher and core voice in the development of Stoic principles.
The modern shorthand for Stoicism is well-known (sort of a moral toughness and rejection of pleasure) and indeed, Aurelius writes “the flesh you should disdain…a mere network of blood and nerves.”
More to the point, however, the heart of this particular Stoicism is that the connective tissue of life, nature and eternity is greater than flesh. Humanity (although he didn’t use that word), timelessness, and virtues are supreme. From Book 2:
We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids… so to work in opposition to one another is against nature, and anger or rejection is opposition.
This concept of connectedness and whole flows throughout Meditations and echoes similar thoughts of our connection to nature (‘nature’ meaning all existing things that are not human) espoused by Transcendentalists, and even the modern environmental movement launched, in part, by Rachel Carson’s assertion and proof of our inter-connection at the molecular level.
Always remember these things: what the nature of the Whole is, what my own nature is, the relation of this nature to that, what kind of part it is of what kind of Whole, and that there is no one who can prevent you keeping all that you say and do in accordance with that nature, of which you are a part.
It is astounding that a man who had no scientific concept of the universe, solar system or even earth’s roundness, could create such an abstract concept of wholeness and eternity that is timeless and all-encompassing.
Aurelius writes in Book 6:
He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same. You should meditate often on the connection of all thing in the universe and their relationship to each other. In a way all things are interwoven and therefore have a family feeling for each other: one thing follows another in due order through the tension of movement, the common spirit inspiring them, and the unity of all being.
On virtues, Marcus Aurelius is quite clear; honesty, truthfulness, reason (but not Enlightenment Reason as the antithesis of emotion, rather reason as a way of understanding emotion.)
From Book 9:
Either all things flow from one intelligent source and supervene as in one coordinated body, so the part should not complain at what happens in the interest of the whole – or all is atoms, and nothing more than present stew and future dispersal. Why then are you troubled? Say to your directing mind: ‘Are you dead, are you decayed, have you turned into an animal, are you pretending, are you herding with the rest and sharing their feed?’
Marcus Aurelius died in 120 AD at the age of 58 and unfortunately, with his death, the curtain closed on the period of Pax Romana.
That someone thought to publish his Meditations, mankind has been forever changed. American novelist Marilynne Robinson once wrote that language creates a prism through which light passes. Meditations is the kind of book that leaves me cheering my forebears for creating and preserving the language that captured such light.
Read more from Marcus Aurelius and others gifted with the formidable task of growing old in The Gifts and Grace of Old Age.