Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor from March 7, 161 until his death on March 17, 180. He lived and died more than 2,000 years ago, but his legacy lives on in ‘Mediations’, a series of twelve notebooks in which he recorded his thoughts as he practiced the art of constant self-examination. He may have been ruler of a vast empire in his lifetime, but he is remembered and revered as an amateur philosopher whose literary musings are as relevant today as they were two millennia ago. .
I have long admired the classics of literature because of the universal truths, lessons, and themes that stand the test of time, and that is why they should be read and taught regularly. The four central themes of his notebooks are death, how we should deal with our anger, how we treat others, and how fame is a totally meaningless thing. Think about these four concepts and how much of our daily lives we spend staring at them and worrying so much that we currently have an epidemic of anxiety and mental illness on our hands.
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Even though he was at the head of an empire whose language was Latin, Marcus Aurelius composed his notebooks in Greek, and since I don’t read that language, I have to rely on one of the many translations that exist. . I own a copy which is translated and heavily annotated by Robin Waterfield, but there is a wonderful (and free) translation on Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) which is available for anyone who wants to read it.
I appreciated the notes Waterfield included in the copy I have. Many of them only serve to further explain or illustrate the text, but he also added some pop-cultural references. One was to one of my favorite movies, “Dead Poets Society”, and how the teacher, played by Robin Williams, illustrates to boys that everything in life is transient – we all become (no matter how bad we are great in life)” food for worms.
Another note points to a rap song by Akira the Don. I looked it up and listened to the song referenced in my book, but if you have the time and inclination there’s also one by Akira the Don which is over forty minutes long and includes the whole first volume. Why would a modern-day British musician use words written over 2,000 years ago in not one, but several songs? Because these are words of profound truth and wisdom that we need more of today.
That’s why classics matter. So we can see that the things we are worried about are not new, and that if we stop and think for a minute, we might see that everything will be fine because nothing lasts forever, including ourselves, and that in the grand scheme of the entire universe, we (and or so-called problems) are insignificant.
I love this quote from Notebook 4.3: “There is no retreat more peaceful and serene than a man’s own mind, and this is especially true of a man who has such inner resources as he You just have to draw from it to be completely serene. ” This is from Waterfield’s translation; the one on Project Gutenberg reads quite differently because that’s how translation works, but the essence is the same.
Throughout his notebooks and his reflections, Aurèle often compares life and reality to a river that never stops changing, flowing, reviving, growing, constantly advancing and never retreating. Here’s my pop culture reference – be like that ship in Garth Brooks’ famous song, “The River”.
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Next month’s reading selection is “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark.