The idea that wisdom is found through exploration has long been with us. It is a cornerstone of many cultures and the driving force behind scientific inquiry. We venture forth into the undiscovered, leaving behind the familiar, and the distractions and temptations therein, as the early Christian desert fathers and mothers did in Egypt. One need not travel far to satisfy this impulse. Extremes of experience have long fueled enlightenment, as memoirs of exile, debauchery, and disaster promise to this day. Many of the adventurers had no choice, however. Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned, facing execution on trumped-up treason charges. And while writing Don Quixote, Cervantes partly drew on experiences of five years as the galley slave of Barbary corsairs.

With the advent of modernity, writers and artists actively sought out these edgelands of insight. During the age of Romanticism, a tendency developed toward outward journeys into the physical world (Humboldt, Caspar David Friedrich) and inward journeys into the psychological interior (De Quincey, Schiller). Often, both routes were simultaneously sought (Goethe, Novalis, Coleridge). As the world was increasingly mapped, the voyeuristic explorer was viewed as a more questionable figure. Knowledge became associated with delving into the depths rather than seeking the heights of what mankind was capable of—Conrad’s Heart of Darkness comes to mind. At times, the writer-explorer described what he was already experiencing—hence, Carl Jung’s observation that Lucia Joyce and her father, James, were “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”

In other cases, this descent (what the ancient Greeks called katabasis) was cultivated by design—for instance, George Orwell’s intentional destitution in Down and Out in Paris and London, where he sank in order to see. There was treasure, it seemed, for those who dared to dive deep and could safely return. Yet those who had come close to actual netherworlds urged caution. “We, the survivors,” Primo Levi wrote, “are not only a tiny but also an anomalous minority. We are those who, through prevarication, skill, or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”

Another side exists to this allure of the extremes and the supposed wisdom one can find there. If there is the promise of existential answers at the nadir of existence, perhaps answers can also be found at the zenith—which is one reason that Marcus Aurelius, over 1,800 years dead, remains a major presence in cultural discourse: a learned ghost at our decadent twenty-first-century feast. Here is a man who ruled over the vast Roman Empire, climbing to the pinnacle of his age. What he found there was not the God’s-eye view that we might expect. We know this because he transcribed his thoughts in a work that still exerts a magnetic pull for the ambitious and the forlorn alike. Meditations is a book rediscovered with every successive generation. What explains its lasting appeal? What are we really searching for when we look back almost two millennia for advice on modern life?

In all likelihood, Meditations was never intended to be found. Its original title, if it had one, is unknown. The earliest surviving traces refer to the series of short books as notes “to himself,” indicating that they were essentially a private exercise to bolster Marcus Aurelius’s primarily Stoic worldview. For around 800 years, the collection appears to have been lost, or at least consigned to obscurity. It reappears in the Byzantine Empire, a thousand miles from Rome, in a codex belonging to Arethas, archbishop of Caesarea Mazaca. From there, it vanishes and then reappears sporadically before making its way back, finding its place in the Vatican Library around 1300. Around the time of the Reformation, copies of Meditations circulated among Black Forest humanists, Swiss botanists, Holy Roman Empire alchemists, and the more enlightened royal courts of Europe. From its printed publication at this time, Meditations began its orbit, to influence the times to come, with philosophers, writers, business magnates, sports stars, and even presidents championing its insight. (Theodore Roosevelt carried it on his ill-fated Amazon River of Doubt expedition.) Never far from the best-selling lists, Meditations orbits us still.

Though lauded by the prosperous, Meditations is a book about adversity rather than a manual for success. Certainly, it is concerned with the pressures that prominence brings, but more so the pressures of just being alive, especially when facing the great levelers of time and mortality. Death surrounded the emperor. His father died when Marcus was a young boy. Marcus and his wife, Faustina, would lose at least eight children in infancy. Meditations is infused with grief.

It is also a book about war, written on active duty, in contested territories, amid warring tribes sporadically placated with uneasy truces and alliances with Rome. For most of the text, death is a specter in the subtext; but occasionally, a reference demonstrates the fragility of life and the human body. “If you have ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a head that has been cut off, lying some distance away from the rest of the body,” Marcus writes, “you will have some idea of what a person makes of himself, as far as he can, when he is unwilling to consent to what comes to pass and cuts himself off from others or when he does something that is against the common interest.” At another point, he claims that there is “nothing here but a stink of decay and a sackful of gore; if you can see clearly, then look!” Some of this grim atmosphere came from the fact that Meditations is also a plague book: a pandemic killed Marcus Aurelius’s co-emperor and stepbrother Lucius Verus, and perhaps 5 million others (including, possibly, Marcus himself, in time). Life was precarious, death seemingly arbitrary.  

But adversity unquestionably came from man-made sources, too. Though the era was a stable one for the expansive Roman Empire (Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors), plenty of societal turbulence still roiled the capital, as did uprisings on the borders and the continual threat of betrayal and palace coups. One such act of treachery happened to Marcus when his friend Avidius Cassius turned against him. Despite Marcus’s attempts to mediate a peaceful, even ignominious, solution, the rebellion ended with Avidius’s head sent in a box to the appalled emperor. The contemporary writer Tertullian noted in his Apologeticus that Roman emperors at their most triumphant moments would be reminded, “Look behind you. Remember you are a man,” with mortality the obvious implication. Marcus Aurelius was intelligent, experienced, and introspective enough not to need such a memento mori.

Notwithstanding the innate humility of Meditations, it begins with a fanfare of tributes. The emperor acknowledges the teachers and relatives who influenced him and the traits he learned from them. It reveals how he perceived himself, for all his lofty insider position, as an outsider. This is a brief self-portrait, told through reflections on others—his mother’s modesty (“far removed from that of the rich”); his great-grandfather, who kept him away from public schools and the rabble; his tutor, who gifted him a disdain for the spectacle and wanton violence of the chariot races and gladiatorial battles; his adoptive father, who taught him the value of “a curb on public acclamations and every kind of flattery during his reign.”

For the first—but by no means the last—time, one detects in Meditations a Tolkienesque sense of a selfless ruler, reluctant to assume the title but choosing to do so through duty. Marcus exhibits disdain for a world seen solely through books: “When I conceived a passion for philosophy, I did not fall in with any sophist, nor did I sit down to pore over books or work out syllogisms or busy myself with speculations about matters in the heavens.” What lessons he learned from his instructors only prepared him to begin the true process of learning, which would occur in life. And what Marcus Aurelius would really learn was how to suffer.

The Triumph of Marcus Aurelius, by Giandomenico Tiepolo: Meditations is also a book about war, written on active duty, in contested territories, surrounded by warring tribes. (Bridgeman Images)

What follows is a book essentially of maxims, written for no other motive than peace of mind and the saving of his own soul. Whatever its guilt or innocence in terms of inspiring the self-help-quote-blasted wasteland we now dwell in, Meditations is a remarkably close book. Part of this is due to the nature of the prose, clear and fresh as pure water. A real person is there, among the aphorisms, in actual places and granular moments—examining bread or figs, staring into a fire, watching ears of corn bending toward the soil or waves crashing on headlands. The vastness and elevation of Marcus Aurelius’s life is ancient history, but these intimacies bring us within a breath or a thought of him.

The centuries of acclaim are, in many ways, well deserved. No revisionist Cadaver Trial need be held here. Meditations is full of sage advice. Its espousal of “wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage” rings true in these infantilized, puritan times. At its heart is autonomy and the responsibility that comes with it. “If you regard anything that is independent of your will as good or bad for yourself,” he writes, “it will necessarily follow that whenever you fail to escape such an evil or attain such a good, you will cast blame on the gods and hate the people who are responsible for your failing.” The key to breaking the cycles of misdirection and resentment that ensue is to find “contentment” in one’s “own just conduct and benevolent disposition.” The answer, that is, lies not outside but within, “for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul.” Meditations urges flexibility, the ability to adapt to being wrong, and a generosity toward the less advantaged. It discourages tribalism, fallacious thinking, and dogma, and promotes a healthy skepticism toward critics. “Nothing comes to be better or worse for being praised. . . . Does an emerald become any worse if nobody praises it? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a sword, a blossom, or a bush?”

Time is a major theme in Meditations, a “raging torrent” that lays waste but not without revelation. For all our contemporary catechisms of progress (inarguable in terms of technology but much less so in moral terms), the emperor’s claim that “one who has seen the present world has seen all that has ever been from time everlasting and all that will ever be into eternity” seems pertinent. “Call to mind, say, the time of Vespasian, and you will see the same old things: people marrying, bringing up children, falling sick, dying fighting wars, feasting, trading, working the land, flattering, putting on airs, suspecting their fellows, hatching plots, praying for the death of others, grumbling at their present lot, falling in love, piling up fortunes, lusting for high office or a crown; and now that life of theirs is utterly dead and nowhere to be seen.” As it was then, so it will be. But remember, too, that life is short: “Do not act as though you had ten thousand years to live.”

Marcus’s solution is not so much seize the day, as rival Epicureans might have put it, or to hell with the day, as the Stoics’ rival Cynics might, so much as inhabit and endure the day. Above all, he cautions “not to be led astray,” which is where problems arise. Marcus’s choice of aphoristic form was not what it seems now. There was a time, until relatively recently (Nietzsche is a powerful example), where this succinct concentration of philosophy had a devastatingly radical impact. Now, however, with sound bites, headlines, online platitude engines, and the indignities of self-help culture, their impact is diminished. A reader once may have greeted such pearls of wisdom as “remember how long you have been deferring these things” or “come to your own rescue” with contemplation, not a sense of overfamiliarity. “You allow your happiness to depend on what passes in the souls of other people” may be true, but it feels soiled with overuse.

At times, as well, the guidance sounds beneficial but could actually be detrimental, if enacted. “Perfection of character requires this,” the emperor insists, “that you should live each day as though it were your last, and be neither agitated, nor lethargic, nor act a part.” Setting aside whether perfection is possible or even desirable, can anyone live at such a teetering pitch? Should anyone?

These night thoughts have an aubade of sorts at dawn, highlighting Marcus Aurelius’s ability to utilize the power of negative thinking. “Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.” While this may be true, the emperor’s explanations for why this is the case are unconvincing—namely, these people lack the reason that he possesses and are pitiable. This condescension is sometimes combined with a life-negating quality: “Despise the flesh—just blood and bones, and a mesh of interwoven nerves, veins, and arteries.” Marcus’s Germanic campaigns may have fostered a protective armor of detachment or a traumatized reaction to extreme violence, but his evident disgust with humanity arouses the question: What was the fighting for, other than futility? “All that is highly prized in life is hollow, putrid, and trivial,” he answers. Then what is living for?

Marcus offers further dispiriting responses. “When you have savories and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is a corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falerian wine is merely grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus.” All the misanthropy of a weary god is sometimes shown. “Asia and Europe are mere corners of the universe. . . . Every ocean is a drop of water, and Mount Athos is a clod of earth; and the whole of present time is but a point of eternity.”

Yet the reality is that we do not live at that scale in daily life, any more than we do at a deathbed pitch. While his pessimistic view of grandeur, imperial and personal, is bracing, it offers little comfort or practicality beyond resignation. “In no great while, you will be no one and nowhere, and nothing that you now behold will be in existence, nor will anyone now alive.” His is a cold consolation. When Marcus claims that “change is nothing bad for things, any more than surviving change is good for them,” it is worth remembering that consciousness and faith suggest that we are not mere things and that we exist beyond just the molecular level. This reminder applies also to his comparisons with bees, horses, and dogs—creatures that, beyond our anthropomorphic projections, have very different consciousnesses from us.

Equally questionable are Marcus Aurelius’s political assertions. “Death and life, fame and obscurity, wealth and poverty, happen to good and bad in equal measure,” he claims, which is demonstrably untrue. It is admittedly astonishing to hear a man of his rank say, “Alexander the Great and his stable boy were brought to the same level in death.” But in the realm of life, these matters are fundamentally imbalanced—life expectancy, levels of deprivation, and so on. A worrying strain of determinism emerges in his writing; the negative side to amor fati (love of one’s fate). Marcus’s contentment with fate (“willingly surrender yourself to Clotho, and let her spin the thread of your fate into whatever events she chooses”) could be the kind of disastrously self-fulfilling acquiescence suited only to a masochist or a fool. Contingency, lateral thinking, or free will is not considered in any real depth by Marcus, and the generosity he shows to supposed agents of fate is vicariously callous and a betraying of victims—a distant foreshadowing of the magical-thinking limitations that we see today in political and social circles: “What causes no harm to the city causes no harm to the citizen. . . . But if the community really is harmed, do not be angry with the person who is responsible, but show him what he has failed to see.”

Eugène Delacroix’s Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, 1844: for most of Meditations, death is a specter in the subtext. (Bridgeman Images)

And yet, a sense of wonder seeps through in Meditations—in the act, for instance, of noticing “the idle pageantry of a procession, plays on a stage, flocks and herds, the clashing of spears, a bone tossed to puppies, a scrap of bread cast into a fishpond, the wretched labors of overladen ants, the scurrying of startled mice, puppets pulled about on their strings.” Marcus Aurelius may be a jaded observer, but his eye betrays him.

None of which would indicate that Meditations is a vital text for our age. Yet it is, which says as much, perhaps, about the dearth of meaningful guidance in our times as it does about Marcus Aurelius’s lasting foresight. The importance he places on resisting enslavement to one’s passions, whether desire or fear, has never been more vital, when the market, the media, and the state thrive on such manipulations. Instead, he advocates a “ruling center,” where one might thrive, “awaiting nothing and fleeing from nothing,” and in doing so, avoid being in thrall to “vain pursuits.” This placing of needs over wants suggests that the lasting utility of Meditations might be not in the elite realm, where CEOs seek to outdo one another with performances of humility and enlightenment, but in the much-beset democratic realm. The ideal that Marcus conjures is straightforward but surprisingly difficult: one “makes himself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any man.” An implicit suspicion of materialism is evident throughout—“where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are”—and an elevation of independence of spirit: “Things as such have not the slightest hold on our soul. . . . The soul alone alters and moves itself.”

Distance is integral. The emperor chose to spend much of his time out on the empire’s peripheries, avoiding the fleshpots of the imperial center, far from temptation, complacency, and comfort. His ascetic attraction to the wilderness is just one of many qualities that his creed shared with Christianity (which his regime persecuted). Again and again, Marcus castigates “tyrants . . . exercising their power over life and death with appalling arrogance,” referring to figures like Phalaris and Nero.

Yet Marcus Aurelius’s caution became indecision, his trust foolhardy. He made Avidius Cassius Rector Orientis not long before the general raised an army against him. If historical accounts are to be believed, his wife, Faustina the Younger, had a skill for conspiracies and a deficiency of loyalty. What is undeniable is the amorality of his son and successor, Commodus. In Meditations, Marcus sketches the worst possible leader as “bestial, brutish, puerile, fatuous, deceitful, coarse, mercenary, tyrannical,” characteristics that his son would embody, portraying himself as Hercules, Romulus, and the greatest of gladiators, publicly killing countless exotic animals, before he was unceremoniously assassinated.

Defending the empire’s hinterlands, and cutting himself off from life’s inequities and venalities, evidently resulted in negligence on Marcus Aurelius’s part. The system of thought and practice that the emperor represented required something akin to a saint to be in power. Such people are rare, and his failure to establish checks and balances is damning. Worse still is the failure in parental guidance. It was seemingly not only physical but also emotional absence that did the damage. He even confessed his coldness: “From one point of view, human beings are the beings who are closest to us, insofar as we must do good to our fellows and show them tolerance: but insofar as any of them stands in the way of our closest duties, a human being then comes to be one of the things that are indifferent to me, no less than the sun, or the wind, or a wild beast.” In Meditations, Marcus also wrote prophetically, “a person often acts unjustly by what he fails to do, and not only by what he does.” The Pax Romana died with him, and he bears a degree of culpability for the deluge that followed.

The undoing of Marcus Aurelius’s otherwise noble philosophy was that which is the undoing of every form of philosophy—solipsism. It is a factor sadly all too evident in many who claim to be his inheritors today, however profitable the selling of self-perfection might be. The glory of Meditations and its writer lies, by contrast, in imperfection. This becomes most apparent when you consider the book as a series of aspirations rather than declarations, as prayers rather than accomplishments—when you see the emperor not as a Stoic but as someone who desperately wanted to be one. “Enough of all this miserable way of life, this whining and apishness,” he exhorts himself. “Why are you troubled?” he asks, as alone in his thoughts as any of us throughout the centuries, adrift in the blue hours of night. By doing so, he reaches out to us across time, surviving the vanishing he’d predicted, not in godlike Caesar form or even as enlightened lecturer but because of his flaws and his quest to be better. Meditations is not a lofty call from the mountaintops. It is a dark reflection in a night mirror, honest and unflattering, showing us the truth of our failings and what we do not wish to see, showing us the only real possibility of salvation.

Top Photo: Meditations is full of sage advice—its espousal of “wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage” rings true in our infantilized, puritan times. (©The Holbarn Archive/Bridgeman Images)


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