BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

They don't make leaders like this anymore ...

Here's one that I missed in my schooling … although it's understandable as I really didn't do much in the Roman stuff (it's not like I went to a Catholic school or a seminary). However, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who lived from 121 - 180 ce and reigned from 161 - 180 ce) was about as ideal a ruler as one might wish for … not only did he have all the requisite military and organizational skills you'd want, he was also a significant Stoic philosopher.

Marcus Aurelius had been hand-picked by Hadrian to be his successor (being adopted by Pius Antonius, who was adopted by Hadrian – as a sort of two generation succession plan), and was made Consul (leader of the Senate) at the young age of 19. He was a student of the Stoic philosophers, very little of whose actual writings have survived … meaning that his Meditations, which are basically notes to himself (in fact, the original title of these was “To Himself” – which he wrote in his 50's while in Germany), is one of the most coherent expressions of that philosophy.

The Meditations are twelve “books” with varying subject matter. The first of these is a listing of people who had an influence on his thought, and parts of this are remarkably modern in their approach … I especially noted section 14:
From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice … and from him I received the idea of a polity I which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government that respects most of all the freedom of the governed …
I was a bit frustrated sitting down to write this review, as (except for the preceding) I wasn't able to immediately suss out what specific passages I'd meant to be flagging with my little book marks, several of which were in the various parts of this book. So, I guess I'm going to have to dig a bit to find stuff to give you a feel of this. Again, this is a bunch of “notes”, really, most of the 10-page-or-shorter “books” here have 40-60 numbered sections with individual thoughts, so it's not a “philosophical system” so much that would have a logical arc to it … making it a bit of a challenge to summarize.

Here's one from Book IV, section 40:
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe, too, the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.
Marcus Aurelius was writing these in his 50's, and he spends a lot of text returning to a concept of how fleeting human life is (“All ephemeral, dead long ago.” VIII:25) … there are many sections here which rattle off a list of names (no doubt famous in his time) who are gone, the courts, the kings, etc. This next bit is a more concise example of this, from Book VII, section 21:
In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you.
One of the interesting bits of info from the introductory material here was the source of the term “Stoic”, which has come to mean having the ability to endure pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining, but it actually comes from the Greek “Stoa”, a covered colonnaded walkway around a building, which is where the philosopher Zeno held gatherings … which fits in to the idea that Stoicism “is not so much a single systematic doctrine as a winding intellectual current” – so it got named for where its adherents hung out!

While he writes about various more “mystical” things (how substances move from state to state over time, all a part of keeping “the whole universe ever youthful and in its prime” – XII:23), and how one can best make one's way through society, much of the Meditations are focused on what one has to assume to be his own contemplation of death, which I think is well summed up in this bit from Book XII, section 21:
Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and perish in order tht other things in continuous success may exist.
This is not to say that the entire book is a downer contemplation on dissolution and death, but – given the biographical context in which this was created – it is an over-riding theme which puts in context all the other material about how to conduct oneself, how to manage one's internal states, and the contemplations about how the universe operates (including what could well have been somewhat blasphemous at the time – his occasional questioning about the existence of the Gods).

The version of Meditations that I have is one of those trusty Dover Thrift books, with a $3.00 cover price. Needless to say, these can be thrown in on another order from the on-line guys (I've recently gotten Amazon Prime, so no longer have to navigate orders to the free-shipping promised land, but these were always handy for pushing things over that line), but you should be able to talk your local brick-and-mortar book vendor into ordering in a copy (I doubt they're on the shelves, given the very slim profit margin on a book that inexpensive). This is a classic of Western thought, and I'm glad to have “caught up with it” (especially as I'm currently at the age which the author wrote this, and am dealing with some of the same things my life). It's one of those things that everybody should read, but in our currently degraded society, there are few that would actually make the effort … but for three bucks and a few hours of reading, why not?

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Tags: book review

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