An Unquenchable Candle in the Darkness
Frustration. Treachery. Illness. Ceaseless warfare. Repeated bereavement.
This was the backdrop of the adult life of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born in 121 CE, ruler of most of the known world from 161 to his death in 180. Marcus from boyhood had been attracted to philosophy, and it was to the Stoic creed he turned. This was a school of thought created by the Greek Zeno and honed by a lame Phyrgian ex-slave, Epictetus. But it was Marcus himself, in the miraculous survival of a series of notebooks he wrote for himself while on extended military campaign near the end of his life, who brought Stoic thought in its essence to a grateful posterity.
He did this by creating a practical guide to living. In twelve brief chapters, known today as The Meditations, but originally entitled simply ‘to himself’, Marcus recorded observations of mankind, nature, the workings of the universe, the role of the gods, and his own struggles to live the just, upright, and virtuous life despite enormous stresses and temptations. His philosophy is simple, direct, austere, and profoundly comforting: Fame is worthless; soon you shall be dead, and those who remember you dead as well. Life is a challenge, full of sudden and unexpected twists, and our task here is to be surprised at nothing, do our duty, seek wisdom, honour the gods, and show compassion and kindness to others. Death is the natural extension of life and not to be feared.
Marcus repeatedly states that nothing can exist without change, and therefore all change, including death, is to be welcomed. “Green grape, ripe cluster, raisin; every step a change, not into what is not, but what is yet to be.” Book XI, 35
This is so because the universe is profoundly interconnected: “Frequently consider the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another. For in a manner all things are implicated with one another, and all in this way are friendly to one another…” Book VI, 38
“All things are mutually intertwined, and the bond is holy; and there is hardly anything unconnected with any other thing. For things have been co-ordinated, and they combine to form one universal order…” Book VII, 9
He contemplated long and hard the men and women who had trod this Earth before him, and of the fruitlessness and waste of attempting to cultivate fame and repute either in this world or after one’s death. “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others. It is clear that we accord much more respect to what our neighbours think of us than to what we think of ourselves.” Book XII, 4
“Who loves fame sets his own good in another’s act, who loves pleasure, in his own feeling, who loves wisdom, in his own doing.” Book VI, 51
Throughout his life he eschewed pomp and luxury, dressing in simple clothes, partaking in moderation of the plainest of foods, repeatedly signing away inheritances left to him to other relatives, and always mindful of his poorer subjects. “Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” Book VIII, 33
Although his first desire always was to devote himself to philosophy, the demands of state denied him this goal. (In this he brings to mind another philosopher-king, Ælfred the Great of Wessex.) Despite this essential conflict between desire and duty, Marcus sought to spend each day content. Again and again he reminds himself: “Love only that which happens to you and is spun with the thread of your destiny. For what is more suitable?” Book VII, 57
His notebooks that became The Meditations were collected after his death (possibly by his daughter Lucilla) and were preserved in a single manuscript, now lost, in the possession of the archbishop Arethas of Caesara in Cappadocia, about 900. The Meditations were not published until 1559. This priceless source of comfort and wisdom is widely available today in English translation. Amongst my collection is the following.
The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, translated by George Long. This 1862 version has much beauty of language but is more than obscure in parts. Look for it from purveyors of used books, oftentimes in handsome pocket editions, such as the Ariel Booklets published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Dover Thrift Editions, an updated version of George Long’s translation, highly readable and available everywhere for £1.25 and $1.50 US
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin Classics, 1964. A vigorous and more idiomatic rendering.
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by A.S.L. Farquharson, Everyman’s Library, 1946 and 1992. The last word in scholarship and accuracy.
Also two biographies of the great man, both full of interest:
Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, by Anthony Birley, 1966, 1993 Barnes & Noble
Marcus Aurelius: His Life and His World, by A.S. L. Farquharson, Oxford Basil Blackwell 1951
“Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good: ever dig, and it will ever flow.”
Book VII, 59