Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ is a piece of literature that has not only given us great insight into the rule of Marcus Aurelius as an emperor and as a human, and the practices (how they lived) of the Roman people at the time, but also a guide for leaders of today and of the future on how to lead the people without losing their humanity. This piece of history has allowed for a unique perspective into a period of ancient Roman Civilization, the age of the Imperial Cult, where many emperors were corrupt and writings from this time have been obscured heavily. However, Meditations has the unique quality of being relatively unbiased as it was more an introspection of the author himself, which leads to an introspection of the civilization at the time. Meditations opened a window for modern historians and philosophers to learn about a Rome that had morals based in logic, compassion, and humility.
These writings not only allow us a looking glass into the past but a guide for the present and future, unlike any other writings from this time. In these writings, one can see Aurelius focusing on some major themes from mindfulness to civic duty. Four of these themes that shows why Meditations is relatively unbiased and different from other ancient texts and those are Impermanence, Fate, and Objectivity. His dive into these topics from his own perspective and what he sees in the world is what allows Meditations to be a very reliable and honest reference into the culture and societal norms at the time. Impermanence or the inevitability of death is one of the topics he uses to help tie in the cycle of life and use it as an analogy in order to explain some concepts. This is unique in thought because he was an emperor during the age of the Imperial Cult, where emperors were ‘divinley’ chosen authorities with no applicable rules on them and access to never-ending wealth. Aurelius pondered on the meaning of life within the framework of death in order to live his life with fulfillment.
He said, Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly. (Book 7:56) In this statement, he is trying to convey the idea that because death is inevitable and in order to get over the fear or anxiety in relation to death, one should consider themselves already dead. Only after this can he/she live properly and lead a fulfilling life. This statement of his sums up his view on death, and the obsession with immortality fairly well. His view on those who seek immortality whether it be physically or even through memory (emperors of Rome) to always be miserable and often unjust in the pursuit of that goal. He says, The fraction of infinity, of that vast abyss of time, allotted to each of us. Absorbed in an instant into eternity.(Book 12:32) He is conveying the fact that our lives, his life, the emperor’s life, any human’s life, is just an instant in comparison to the vast abyss of time. To further expand on this, and give some insight into his thoughts on previous emperors he states, Alexander and Caeser and Pompey.
Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own. The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement. (Book 8:3) He is showing that these emperors who sought glory, fame, immortality, and reverence were slaves to this mindset and could never truly live a meaningful life. However, on the other hand, you have these great philosophers who whether or not they sought remembrance, were granted it by living their true life and having control over their minds through the understanding of the universe. Marcus Aurelius gives us a very clear and straightforward look into the mindset of the elite of Rome not only during his time but in previous emperors as well. Another topic he delves into is the presence and affect fate has on the world. He was considered a soft determinist, meaning he believes everyone has a set path in life however they can choose to go along with it and enjoy life or get dragged along and be miserable. To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.(Book 7:57) He puts it simply in this statement; learn to love what happens in your life, good or bad, and you will remain happy and feel at peace. This statement allows historians to conjecture into the mindset of the people because he made this statement for a reason. A closer look at tis statement shows that the social norm back then was very similar to today, in that everyone is trying to achieve something even if it is not destined for them, and as a result of this feeling miserable and inadequate. He does only what is his to do, and considers constantly what the world has in store for himdoing his best, and trusting that all is for the best. For we carry our fate with us and it carries us.(Book 3:4)
For Marcus, nothing occurred that was not meant to occur. This differentiated him from many other emperors because he was in the mindset of what happens, happens and to fight it was unnatural. However, he still understood the reasons why things happened physically, emotionally, and socially in the world. This leads us to his views on objectivity and hierarchy. Marcus Aurelius was a very objective being and strived in order to maintain his objectivity. He stated many times in Meditations he would take every moment he could, to ponder on his views and see if they maintain an objective and judicial reason for existing. If they did not, then he would question himself why am I feeling like this and so on. This is the basis on why modern-day historians can claim he is a relatively objective commentator on history. He is quoted to say, Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.(Book 7:69) This shows us he lived by this code of objectivity in his opinions and viewpoints on almost everything. Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptancenow, at this very momentof all external events. That’s all you need.(Book 9:6) He says it right here, objectivity, unselfishness, and willing acceptance of external events is all you need in life to be fulfilled. This affords us the opportunity today to view his work as objective and without any motives to push a certain viewpoint or agenda. He talks about his own faults in his work and puts his character and mistakes under a microscope in order to comment on himself and society.
For anything that happens in life, whether in your head or externally, Marcus Aurelius sais, Apply them constantly, to everything that happens: Physics. Ethics. Logic.; (Book 8:13) Look at anything that happens in the world through the lens of logic, science, and credibility. This was his view on culture, politics, and everything else people look at in order to form a better understanding of ancient Rome politically, culturally, and socially. This is why in comparison to most other works from this time, Meditations has the unique characteristic of being holistically unbiased. His understanding of life and values by which he lived make him a great source for historians. This work, Meditations, is one which is seemingly timeless, having applications in modern society across both the Eastern and Western worlds. His ability to separate his own biases from an occurrence in his life is what granted him the skill to be able to dictate the event without muddying it. Most other works recovered from this time period are propagations of certain people’s opinions and legacies.
While these are useful in learning about ancient Rome, they have to be taken with serious care before coming to a conclusion. The beauty of Meditations is that this book serves a dual purpose, gives us access to an unbiased account of events and advice on how to live life fully. To the first point, a historian can be much more lenient with statements from this work, as they seemingly push no agenda or legacy. For the second point, Marcus Aurelius gives us a roadmap for how he was able to achieve a fulfilling life, and how someone even today can do it as well. This writing is philosophical without being complex, allowing the average person to read it and directly apply it to their life. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a rare and beautiful work that still has much to offer, and will continue to be a credible source on Roman history and a roadmap to life for the generations to come.
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