If you’re seeking one of those rallying calls of life affirmation, a tome that channels pure lightning into the veins with an indomitable will to overcome any obstacle at all costs, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations ain’t it. At least, not immediately. “As often as a father kisseth his child, he should say secretly with himself, to-morrow perchance shall he die.” Uplifting, no?
The point though echoed throughout is the sentiment of permanency. All things change: enjoy life whilst we have it for tomorrow is uncertain. Not in a hedonistic way though, so put your pants back on and put the beer back in the fridge. The call is for focus, for calm, for a thirst of learning, of being a good, truthful person unto yourself and unto others. All very pedestrian, and yet extremely encouraging, like a great-grandfather providing life-advice over some Werthers originals.
Meditations are simply a collection of deliberations from the Stoic Roman Emperor, leaning on the shoulders of philosophers Socrates and Epictetus time and again. I had two versions to read: one probably more authentic yet a gruelling trudge through doths and thous and kisseths; and a more recent translated text form the NY Modern Library. In all honesty my mind foundered with the original, but I tried marrying the two at key points. For example, ‘if you were suddenly lifted up to see life from a vast height . . . you’d see how pointless it all is’ doesn’t exactly translate. In the more original text, it discusses the wonderful mutability of all things on earth and celestial. To borrow from Seneca, a muse on their shortness of life. As stated in the introduction, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and there’s a reason why William Wallace in Braveheart doesn’t shout ‘they’ll never take our freeeedom!! . . . because freedom is all in the mind, and you’re bound to die anyway at some point . . . chaaaaarge!!'
Parallels are often drawn to the more immediate natural world, in trees, as the microcosm of our own lives: a single year illustrating the growth from mere buds; the flourish and life of verdance; autumn the slow decay; eventually the leaves fluttering away into the ground as too will our own bodies, feeding nutrients needed to start new life. Despite the transience of our own existence there is a cyclical, comforting view of continuance. Life is more than ‘just us’.
“. . . according to Epicurus, atoms be the cause of all things and that life be nothing else but an accidentary confusion of things, and death nothing else, but a mere dispersion and so of all other things: what doest thou trouble thyself for?"
Perspective is a wonderful thing, and an enduring theme throughout Meditations. Since his missives castigate those seeking fame for no purpose than ‘fleeting’ immortality, the Emperor would be amused that millions still read his words almost two thousand years later. Aurelius attained his own legacy despite the intention – his Meditations were never meant to be a published work but purely for himself, and perhaps that’s what makes the writings so endearing. The naked honesty of how he viewed the world and himself, chastening himself to constantly be better. There is total conviction in self-empowerment, of taking responsibility and action above ceaseless complaining. And who can argue with that? To paraphrase:
Past and future have no hold on you, only the present, and even that can be minimised – when everything appears so unbearable, endure!
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