Old favourites: Meditations (160-181AD) by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Martin Hammond

‘Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you’

 

Some books compel our interest on account not only of their content, but the remarkable nature of their production. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations comprises a literary niche-genre unto itself: the philosophical self-help book written by a Roman emperor. The twelve books of Meditations are Marcus Aurelius’ notes to self: it appears he never intended them for publication, but rather as auto-exhortations to “be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth”. Meditations is both a portrait of a noble spirit struggling with its all-too-human frailties, and an ageless road-map for those seeking to live a virtuous life.

Marcus Aurelius lived and ruled in the second century AD, when the ideals of Stoicism held sway over the Roman court. He takes stock of himself - “a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler” - and goads himself to a sense of urgency: “there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.” As a Stoic, clearing away the clouds meant submitting to the laws of nature, accepting transience and death, and cultivating kindness towards friends and enemies alike. There is no sense seeking refuge from the world’s strife “in the country, by the sea, in the hills … when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself”.

Judging by the frequency with which he denounces it, it seems that the worldly adornment most tempting to Marcus Aurelius was fame. “What then, 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.” He insists that rather than pursue vacuous applause, the wise should devote their efforts to becoming good. After all, “Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you”.

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