The Meditations – literally “Things to One’s Self” – of the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is one of the best known and best loved works of philosophy. Teaching American students European history and culture in the early 2000s, it was almost invariably the text they picked out as being the most interesting and “relevant”.
Marcus Aurelius was of the Stoic school of philosophy. As he tries to define a “good life” and a “good man”, the themes to which he returns again and again are the need to accept the workings of nature – including loss and death – to avoid being dominated by worldly desires, the importance of charity and kindness to all, but above all calm courage and resignation when faced with what cannot be changed.
All this becomes very personal when it is realized that much of the work was written against the background of the Antonine Plague. It began in 165-6 and devastated the Roman Empire, which recovered largely thanks to Marcus Aurelius’ firm leadership and enlightened policies, so much so that his reign was considered on balance a happy one.
Marcus Aurelius’ adopted brother and co-Emperor died of the plague; up to 10% of the population succumbed and, among many other results, tax revenues from Egypt plummeted; civic building works had to be suspended for fifteen years for lack of money and man-power; mining was disrupted, something reflected in the dramatic fall in lead pollution in Greenland ice cores*; the army was so depleted that new recruitment and immigration arrangements had to be made.
There is debate about the nature of the plague in question, which is described in some detail by the great physician Galen, but the fairly general consensus is that it was small pox **. He remarks that that the mortality rate was much higher among the poor and the slaves, and where people were crowded together, as in the army, and that this was characteristic of epidemics. Himself a Stoic, he bore the loss in a fire of all his possessions, including a vast collection of medical texts, with equanimity.
The Meditations seem to be personal jottings, not rigorously organized and intended for publication and this is, perhaps, their attraction. Himself in poor health, he had survived the plague and outlived his beloved wife, Faustina, and many of their children. He is writing to convince himself, not as an academic exercise.
Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations looking back over his life and, in a few very moving sentences, recalling and thanking those who had most influenced him:
From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.
From the reputation and remembrance of my father [who died when Marcus Aurelius was three] , modesty and a manly character.
From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.
From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.
From my tutor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.
From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy……
From Rusticus …..I learned….. to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus [ex-slave and one of the greatest Stoic philosophers], which he communicated to me out of his own collection.
From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to trust to nothing but reason, not even for a moment; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding…….
From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living in harmony with nature; and gravity without affectation; and to look carefully after the interests of friends; and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration…..
From Alexander the Platonic, rarely, unless absolutely necessary, to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relationship to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations…….
From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice…..
Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power
Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, it is a violent stream, for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.
The unripe grape, the ripe bunch, the dried grape, all are changes, not into nothing, but into something which does not yet exist.
Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.
When a man kisses his child, said Epictetus, he should whisper to himself, “To-morrow maybe you will die.”
– But those are words of bad omen.
“No word is a word of bad omen,” said Epictetus, “which expresses any work of nature. Or if it is so, it is also a word of bad omen to speak of the ears of corn being reaped.”
Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they were themselves immortal.
How many whole cities have met their end: Helike [destroyed in a tsunami in 373 B.C.], Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others.
And all those you know yourself, one after another. One who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and then the man who buried him – all in the same short space of time.
In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a drop of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.
To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint.
Like an olive that ripens and falls.
Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.
The Meditations are available on-line at www.archive.org
*The Antonine Plague Revisited, Richard Duncan-Jones, Actos 52 (2018) pp.41-72 and on-line at www.academia.edu
**Galen and the Plague, Rebecca Fleming, on-line at https://brill.com