December 27, 2009

A Meditation of Marcus Aurelius

"Words in common use long ago are obsolete now. So too the names of those once famed are in a sense obsolete -- Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus; a little later Scipio and Cato, then Augustus too, then Hadrian and Antoninus. All things fade and quickly turn to myth: quickly too utter oblivion drowns them. And I am talking of those who shone with some wonderful brilliance: the rest, once they have breathed their last, are immediately 'beyond sight, beyond knowledge'. But what in any case is everlasting memory? Utter emptiness.

So where should a man direct his endeavor? Here only -- a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies, a disposition to welcome all that happens as necessary, intelligible, flowing from an equally intelligible spring of origin."

The preceding quotation is taken from Book Four of the collection that has come to be known as the Meditations, written by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Emperor Aurelius never intended these collections of private writings to be published, much less read by millions of readers over two thousand years in the future, but the world is fortunately enriched to have the such ageless wisdom. These are not just the musings of a very wise man of antiquity, but also those of the most powerful man in the world at the time. Ruling a large, regional empire and millions of subjects, a Roman Emperor wielded immense personal and political power. Yet it is in the face of this vast power that Emperor Aurelius is confronted with his mortality, his frailty, and the ultimate question of meaning in life. The passage I have chosen here is representative of a major theme in his Meditations: all that we have and can aspire to be is ephemeral and the accumulation of power is meaningless as an end in itself.

The historical figures that Emperor Aurelius lists as being then obsolete are far more so to us, now nearly in 2010. I am not a dedicated scholar of Roman history (I have read general world histories, works historical fiction, and seen a few television documentaries) I confess that I do not recognize any of the first names he lists. And of the second list--Scipio, Cato, Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus--I know the name Scipio but cannot match it with his significance. I know Cato and Augustus and Hadrian, of course, but the name Antoninus means nothing to me. I dare say that the average man or woman would fare no better than myself and quite likely may not know any of these great names of Roman history. This serves to illustrate the point all too well, as these seemingly unforgettable giants of human history have faded from our collective memory.

The advice given here, from a man who has attained the most any human could hope to achieve in that period, is to live a good life, a righteous life, and to strive toward the "common good". This has been in my own thoughts, again, recently. Specifically with regards to a certain other person I know. The choices I make, the choices we make--do we make them for self gratification, for the accumulation of power, or for a higher purpose. Neither you nor I will have the power of a Roman emperor, but we can follow his advice to have a right mind, direct our action for the common good, and live a life that truly matters.

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