So those of you who follow me on Twitter (and if you’re not following me please check out my tweets @asbiv) may have noticed that I recently started reading (and tweeting about) The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and a Stoic. Lots of folks who think about leadership and character seem to have recently rediscovered these ancient writings and a friend of mine recommended them to me. While I don’t share some of Aurelius’s basic premises as a Stoic, I am enjoying reading his meditations about how to live a good and meaningful life in the midst of strife (he died of exhaustion after thirteen years of warfare so he knew a fair amount about strife). Many of his meditations are brief and so they fit well into twitter, but the other day I read a longer section that had too much meaty content for me to boil down to 140 characters. It bears almost no relation to what I blog about here (hence the distinguishing tags on this post) but I decided I had to share it anyway. Again, even in these words I find somethings about which I disagree with Aurelius; still there is good food for thought here. Hope you enjoy both reading and reflecting on it.
[Book Two, Parts 16 and 17] A man’s soul abuses itself in a number of ways, first and foremost by becoming, as much as it can, a cancerous growth, a foreign body in the universe. Complaining against the nature of things is a revolt against nature, which is made up of all the natures of its many parts. Second, it does violence it itself when it scorns another man, or seeks to do him harm out of anger. Third, it wrongs itself when it yields to pleasure or pain. Fourth, when it wears a mask, and speaks or acts falsely on insincerely. Fifth, whenever its actions and efforts have no apparent purpose and cause it to operate at random and without consequence, for even the slightest act should have some end in mind. The end for all rational beings is to obey the reason and law of the one hallowed City and Republic.
What is man? His life a point in time, his substance a watery fluxion, his perceptions dim, his flesh food for worms, his soul a vortex, his destiny inscrutable, his fame doubtful. In sum, the things of the flesh are a river, the things of the soul all dream and smoke; life is war and a posting abroad; posthumous fame ends in oblivion.
What then can guide us through this life? Philosophy, only philosophy. It preserves the inner spirit, keeping it free from blemish and abuse, master of all pleasures and pains, and prevents it from acting without purpose or with the intention to deceive, ensuring that we lack nothing, whatever others may do or not do. It accepts the accidents of fate as flowing from the same source as we ourselves, and above all it waits for death contentedly, viewing it as nothing more than the natural dispersal of those elements composing every living thing. If the constant transformation of one element into another is in no way dreadful, why should we fear the sudden dispersal and transformation of all our bodily elements? This conforms with nature, and nothing natural is bad.
Again, whether or not you agree with this perspective, I hope you’ll find it worth pondering. Because in truth, it’s not that simple.