Essayist Matthew Arnold described the man who wrote these words as “the most beautiful figure in history.” Possibly so, but he was certainly more than that. Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire at its height, yet he remained untainted by the incalculable wealth and absolute power that had corrupted many of his predecessors. Marcus knew the secret of how to live the good life amid trying and often catastrophic circumstances, of how to find happiness and peace when surrounded by misery and turmoil, and of how to choose the harder right over the easier wrong without apparent regard for self-interest.
The historian Michael Grant praises Marcus’s book as “the best ever written by a major ruler,” and Josiah Bunting, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, calls it “the essential book on character, leadership, duty.” Never intended for publication, the Meditations contains the practical and inspiring wisdom by which this remarkable emperor lived the life not of a saintly recluse, but of a general, administrator, legislator, spouse, parent, and judge besieged on all sides.
The Emperor’s Handbook offers a vivid and fresh translation of this important piece of ancient literature. It brings Marcus’s words to life and shows his wisdom to be as relevant today as it was in the second century. This book belongs on the desk and in the briefcase of every business executive, political leader, and military officer. It speaks to the soul of anyone who has ever exercised authority or faced adversity or believed in a better day.
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Written Among the Quadi on the River Gran
1 First thing every morning tell yourself: today I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor. Ignorance of good and evil has made them what they are. But I know that the good is by nature beautiful and the bad ugly, and I know that these wrong-doers are by nature my brothers, not by blood or breeding, but by being similarly endowed with reason and sharing in the divine. None of them can harm me, for none can force me to do wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids, and upper and lower rows of teeth. To work against one another is contrary to nature, and what could be more like working against someone than resenting or abandoning him?
2 What am I but a little flesh, a little breath, and the thinking part that rules the whole? Forget your books! They aren't any part of you. And as someone who is dying, you should disregard the flesh as well: it is nothing but blood and bones and a network of muscle tissues, nerves, and arteries. Breath! What is that? A puff of wind that is never the same, being sucked in one moment and blown out the next. That leaves the thinking part, the part meant to rule. Now that you are old, it is time you stopped allowing it to be enslaved, jerked about by every selfish whim, grumbling at its present lot one moment and bemoaning the future the next.
3 The gods sustain and guide all their works. Not even the vicissitudes of fortune are contrary to nature or to the providential ordering of the universe. It all flows from the gods, who determine what is needed for the welfare of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is good for each part of nature like yourself is whatever the whole of nature provides and whatever tends to sustain it. Now it is change that sustains the whole universe both the simple changes occurring within individual parts as well as the complex changes occurring among parts in combination. Let these thoughts set your mind at ease, and keep them as your guiding principles. Thirst no more for books, so that you will not die mumbling to yourself, but at peace, truly, and with your heart full of thanksgiving to the gods.
4 Remember how long you have procrastinated, and how consistently you have failed to put to good use your suspended sentence from the gods. It is about time you realized the nature of the universe (of which you are a part) and of the power that rules it (to which your part owes its existence). Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.
5 Every hour be firmly resolved, as becomes a Roman and a man, to accomplish the work at hand with fitting and unaffected dignity, goodwill, freedom, and justice. Banish from your thoughts all other considerations. This is possible if you perform each act as if it were your last, rejecting every frivolous distraction, every denial of the rule of reason, every pretentious gesture, vain show, and whining complaint against the decrees of fate. Do you see what little is required of a man to live a well-tempered and god-fearing life? Obey these precepts, and the gods will ask nothing more.
6 Go on abusing yourself, O my soul! Not long and you will lose the opportunity to show yourself any respect. We have only one life to live, and yours is almost over. Because you have chosen not to respect yourself, you have made your happiness subject to the opinions others have of you.
7 Does the news bother you? Do you worry about things out of your control? Then take the time to concentrate your mind in the acquisition of some new and useful knowledge and stop it from flitting about. By the same token, guard against making the mistake of those who keep themselves so busy trying to gain control that they wear themselves out and lose their sense of direction, having no purpose to guide their actions or even their thoughts.
8 Not knowing what other people are thinking is not the cause of much human misery, but failing to understand the workings of one's own mind is bound to lead to unhappiness.
9 Be mindful at all times of the following: the nature of the whole universe, the nature of the part that is me, the relation of the one to the other, the one so vast, the other so small. No one can ever prevent me from saying and doing what is in complete conformity with the whole of which I am so small yet integral a part.
10 When making a not uncommon comparison between faults of character, the philosopher Theophrastus claims that sins of desire are worse than sins of anger. Whereas the angry man seems to reject reason painfully and with a certain unconscious contraction of the spirit, he who sins out of desire, desperate for pleasure, appears more self-seeking and womanish. He was right and worthy of his philosophy to censure sins undertaken for pleasure more heartily than those accompanied by pain. In general, the one is more like a victim fired to anger first by the pain of an injustice and then by the pain of his response, while the other deliberately desires what he knows to be wrong in the hope of deriving pleasure from it.
11 Act, speak, and think like a man ready to depart this life in the next breath. If there are gods, you have no reason to fear your flight from the land of the living, for they will not let any harm come to you; and if there are no gods, or they are indifferent to the affairs of men, why wish to go on living in a world without them or without their guidance and care? But in fact, there are gods, and they do care about men, and they have made it possible for men to guard themselves against what is truly evil. Were there any evil in what awaits us, they would have given us the means of avoiding it.
Besides, how can a man's life be made worse by what does not make him morally worse? Nature cannot possibly have overlooked such an obvious contradiction out of ignorance, or having been aware of it, failed to protect us from it or to resolve it. Nor can nature have erred so egregiously, through want of power or skill, in allowing so-called goods and evils to rain down indiscriminately on good and bad men in roughly equal measure. The truth is this: since death and life, glory and shame, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all of these happen to the good and bad alike, without making the one worse or the other better, none of these things can be in itself either good or bad.
12 How swiftly everything disappears bodies in space and the memory of them in time! So it is with anything that touches our senses, especially those that entice us with the promise of pleasure, or terrify us with the threat of pain, or puff us up with pride and self-importance. The mind readily grasps how worthless and contemptible, filthy, fleeting, and moribund these things are. It makes an accurate appraisal of those whose opinions and voices confer fame, and it apprehends what it means to die. Considered by itself, stripped by reason of all the superstitions surrounding it, death is just another work of nature and only a small child fears works of nature. In fact, death is not just one of nature's works, it is also of essential benefit to her.
Observe how man touches the divine and with what part of his being this contact is made and how that part is then affected.
13 Nothing is more pathetic than feverishly circling the earth and "probing into its depths," as Pindar puts it, to guess what other people are thinking, while all the time failing to realize that one only needs to attend to the inner spirit and to serve it with unswerving devotion. What is this service? To preserve the spirit from passion, from aimlessness, and from resenting what comes from gods and men. We revere the work of the gods because it is excellent, and we love the work of men because hearts and hands like our own have fashioned it, even if at times this work arouses pity owing to man's ignorance of good and evil, a blindness no less profound than the inability to distinguish black from white.
14 Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that a man can lose only the life he is living, and he can live no other life than the one he loses. Whether he lives a long time or a short time amounts to the same thing, for the present moment is of equal duration for everyone, and that is all any man possesses. This is why the loss of life seems so momentary. A man cannot lose the past or the future how can he be robbed of what is not his? Remember, then, these two truths: first, that everything from the beginning is just the same pattern repeating itself, and it makes no difference whether you watch this same show for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for all eternity; and second, that the man who dies young loses not a jot more than the man who dies old. A man can only be deprived of the present moment, for this is all he has, and how can a man lose what he doesn't possess?
15 "Our assumptions determine everything." The problem with these words attributed to Monimus the Cynic is plain enough, but if we consider them in the context of larger truths, they reveal an important insight.
16 A man's soul abuses itself in a number of ways, first and foremost by becoming, as much as it can, a cancerous growth, a foreign body in the universe. Complaining against the nature of things is a revolt against nature, which is made up of all the natures of its many parts. Second, it does violence to itself when it scorns another man, or seeks to do him harm out of anger. Third, it wrongs itself when it yields to pleasure or pain. Fourth, when it wears a mask, and speaks or acts falsely or insincerely. Fifth, whenever its actions and efforts have no apparent purpose and cause it to operate at random and without consequence, for even the slightest act should have some end in mind. The end for all rational beings is to obey the reason and law of the one hallowed City and Republic.
17 What is man? His life a point in time, his substance a watery fluxion, his perceptions dim, his flesh food for worms, his soul a vortex, his destiny inscrutable, his fame doubtful. In sum, the things of the flesh are a river, the things of the soul all dream and smoke; life is war and a posting abroad; posthumous fame ends in oblivion.
What then can guide us through this life? Philosophy, only philosophy. It preserves the inner spirit, keeping it free from blemish and abuse, master of all pleasures and pains, and prevents it from acting without a purpose or with the intention to deceive, ensuring that we lack nothing, whatever others may do or not do. It accepts the accidents of fate as flowing from the same source as we ourselves, and above all, it waits for death contentedly, viewing it as nothing more than the natural dispersal of those elements composing every living thing. If the constant transformation of one element into another is in no way dreadful, why should we fear the sudden dispersal and transformation of all our bodily elements? This conforms with nature, and nothing natural is bad.
English translation copyright © 2002 by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks
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