I’ve mentioned the “Meditations” of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius before – I’ve been writing this blog for over 450 hours, I’m not sure there’s anything I haven’t mentioned except my feelings on the season finale of Doctor Who, Series 7. (Eh.) Marcus Aurelius, philosopher, statesman, Roman, and Emperor wrote twelve “books” which were apparently never meant to be published. These are the private musings, notes to self, of a thoughtful man, written stoically and Stoically. When he lectures anyone, he lectures himself. He even poses questions to parts of himself: his soul, most notably.
There is much to admire in the simplicity and purpose of Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts. They are brief, because Emperors are busy people, especially when earning titles such as Germanicus (which usually involves squashing a nation state or two). They are direct, because he is talking to himself and he needs to be honest. He repeats himself for emphasis and to indicate importance, not out of forgetfulness.
Best, he writes for himself, for clarity, for the now and without thinking of a future audience.
There is a great deal to think about in this, because if you have read “Meditations”, you will know that every page contains a gem and some pages have jewels cascading from them. Yet these are the private thoughts of a person recording ways to improve himself and to keep himself in check – while he managed the Roman empire.
When I talk about improvement, I’m always trying to improve myself. When I find fault, I’ve usually found it in myself first. Yet, what a lot of words I write! Perhaps it is time to reinvestigate brevity, directness and a generosity towards the self that translates well into a kindness to strangers who might stumble upon this. The last thing I’d want to do is to stop people finding what zircons there are because the preamble is too demanding or the journey to the point too long.
Once again, I give my thanks to the writings of someone who died 2000 years ago and gave me so much to think about. Vale, Marcus Aurelius.
I’m reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which I read years ago but had the opportunity to pick up again for $8.33. (Woohoo, cheap Penguins!) The book is full of great thoughts and aphorisms but there are three, from Book 12, that have always appealed to me:
13, How absurd – and a complete stranger to the world – is the man who is surprised at any aspect of his experience in life!
15, The light of a lamp shines on and does not lose its radiance, until it is extinguished. Will then the truth, justice, and self-control which fuel you fail before your own end?
17, If it is not right, don’t do it; if it is not true, don’t say it.
I feel 13 a lot – and it’s rather embarrassing because I am often surprised by the world but I suspect that’s because I’m in my own head a lot. 15 is something I’ve said before, in different ways and never as elegantly, and it’s a great image.
17, however, says it all to me. It’s incredibly, naïvely simple but that is part of its appeal. It is probably one of the greatest maxims for teaching, in terms of commitment, in terms of content and in terms of bravery when faced with the choice of presenting something that you know to be true – and something that you’ve been told to teach.
Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor, philosopher (philosopher king, even, a reputation he gained in his own life time) and the Emperor Hadrian, his sponsor, had a special nickname for him – “Verissimus”, the most true. Herodian wrote: “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”
I spoke earlier this week of champions. It’s nice to read Marcus Aurelius and be reminded of how many amazing thinkers have been contributing to our shared literary legacy over 2000 years.
“If it is not right, don’t do it; if it is not true, don’t say it.”