Marcus Aurelius, Dead for 2,000 Years, Can Set You Straight Today

Marcus Aurelius was Rome's last great emperor, but there's nothing regal about him. He snatches time to write without once mentioning his primary task -- leading the most powerful army in the world.
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As I write, the minions of X have just waged a campaign on Wikipedia to revise the facts of one of the best known episodes in American history so its entry will conform to their idol's dazzlingly dumb word-salad version of that event. Elsewhere, Y is closing in on hit number 3,000. And Z, who has long wanted one, just got an afternoon talk show.

No point naming names. They don't matter. If these people didn't vie for our attention -- and our rage, our envy and our amusement -- others would. Life is incessant. And busy. And it's been that way forever.

"Life is all warfare and a stranger's wanderings, and the reward is oblivion," Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) writes. His remedy:

Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbors... To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming -- in a word, anything that distracts you from fidelity to the ruler within you -- means a loss of opportunity for some other task.

Marcus Aurelius was not the first to see the world as a play in which the characters chase after shadows, forget they are the leading actors of their own dramas and discover too late -- if at all -- that they have wasted their lives. And he was not the first to know what to do about it. But he was blunt and brief and non-judgmental, and the combination makes him stand out from other philosophers. Almost 2,000 years after his death, you can read him as if he published his book last week. [To buy the paperback of The Essential Marcus Aurelius for $8 from Amazon, click here. For the $8.99 Kindle download, click here.]

And not just read Marcus Aurelius. Re-read him. Like all great art, the "Meditations" change as you change -- the book you read in school is different at age 30, and completely fresh again at 60. Lucky is the reader who has one copy all his/her life. What gets underlined is a function of age and life experience; by your dotage, I suspect you'll have marked almost everything.

Marcus Aurelius was, it is said, Rome's last great emperor, but there's nothing regal about him. His father taught him, he writes, that "it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show." In his "Meditations," he goes no further. That is, he snatches time to write without once mentioning his primary task -- leading the most powerful army in the world. It's not that he's modest. It's because he's struggling with the challenge we all face: how to be live with dignity.

If you have read Epictetus -- and if you haven't, why not? The version I love is just 88 small pages -- you know that he was an important influence on Marcus Aurelius. And his teachings are echoed in the "Meditations," for Aurelius is very much a Stoic.

Perform every action, he advises, as if it were your last.

If you want a "peaceful and godlike" existence, simplify your life.

"If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well."

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."

He is brutal on the subject of fame and immortality:

"Small indeed is the life which each person lives, and tiny is the corner of the earth where he lives. Small too is even the longest after-glory, which is handed off, as in a relay race, to others who will soon be dead, not having known even themselves, let alone someone who died long ago."

And he is merciless on the importance of our little lives: "A short life is common to all, yet you avoid and pursue things as though you will live forever. In a little while you, too, will close your eyes, and soon after that another will mourn the person who carried your coffin."

Sweetness? There's plenty of it here, much of it surprising. He's big on kindness to neighbors. He believes no one does wrong intentionally. He suggests that you take "revenge" on others by not being like them.

Mostly, though, he hammers two points home: Life is change. Our days are but a series of choices. From Thich Nhat Hanh and the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl -- what smart thinker says different?

Marcus Aurelius says it in 95 pages. Very helpful. You can read him in an hour and then get on with your life.

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