Stoic wisdom #2

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor of the second century AD who wrote a long series of aphorisms and reflections into a diary, as he had time to set them down. Written to provide personal consolation and encouragement without any thought of publication, the Meditations have been called ‘one of the greatest of all works of philosophy’. Elle Macpherson even named her son ‘Aurelius’ after the emperor.

The Meditations offer thoughts on life and death, on the beauty and purposefulness of Nature, and on man’s duty as a part of that ‘Whole’. Mostly written while campaigning along northern frontiers far from Rome, they allowed Marcus to retreat into his own ‘inner fortress’. Whether feeling anxious or frustrated, they may encourage you to do the same…

Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life.

… will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here?

Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.

[Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Martin Hammond]

Aurelius: a lot to live up to

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