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Book Review (Part 1) The Essential Marcus Aurelius

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[Originally Published for SitNews]

Newly translated and introduced by Jacob Needleman & John P. Piazza
Pages: 110



Emperor Marcus Annius Catitilius Verus was born in 121A.D., to the Roman aristocratic family Annia. Named after his grandfather who held the high office of consul (akin to that of a Prime Minister) a record of three times, Marcus was 'destined' for greatness. Coming from a wealthy and politically connected family, the future emperor was afforded a high quality and early education. Around age seven he was tutored in both Latin and Greek as well of being enrolled in a religious troupe dedicated to the war-god Mars called Salii where he quickly rose to fame and distinguished himself. At age 12, Marcus began his secondary education, during which, the current emperor Hadrian took notice of his solemn demeanor and nicknamed him Verissimus, which means "most truthful" or "most genuine."

Hand-picked by Hadrian to become his eventual successor, Marcus Aurelius finally assumed the title, only to be immediately faced with the prospect of defending the Empire's large territory from invading tribes. Between 167-180, Marcus spent most of his time directly overseeing the military campaigns on the Empire's northern borders (see: Opening scene of The Gladiator). During this period, while conducting his military campaigns, Marcus felt compelled to write down his philosophical inspirations and reminders that later became his famous Meditations which is what this book compiled.

I want to break this review into two parts because there is so much great wisdom that it's almost overwhelming (at least for my humble mind). I will proceed to shamelessly copy entire lengthy quotes from the book that I found inspiring---an action that I’m sure Marcus would forgive...

• 1.10 "From Alexander, the scholar of Greek literature and oratory, never to indulge in gratuitous criticism of others; never to ridicule those who have let slip some unrefined, provincial or ugly phrase, but rather to respond tactfully and offer the correct expression within a reply or a supporting argument."

• 2.1 "Begin each day by saying to yourself: Today I am going to encounter people who are ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, and hostile. People have these characteristics because they do not understand what is good and what is bad. But insofar as I have comprehended the true nature of what is good, namely that it is fine and noble, and the true nature of what is bad, that it is shameful, and the true nature of the person who has gone astray: that he is just like me, not only the physical sense but also with respect to Intelligence and having a portion of the divine...To hinder one another, then, is contrary to Nature, and this is exactly what happens when we are angry and turn away from each other."

• 2.4 "Remember how long you have been putting these things off, and how often you have received an opportunity from the gods and have not made use of it. By now you ought to realize what cosmos you are a part of, and what divine administrator you owe your existence to, and that an end to your time here has been marked out, and if you do not use this time for clearing the clouds from your mind, it will be gone, and so will you."

• 2.14 "Even if you should live three thousand years, or thirty thousand for that matter, know just the same that no one loses any other life than the one he now lives, nor does one live any other life than that which he will lose. The longest and shortest lives thus amount to the same, for the present moment is equal for everyone, and what we lose turns out never to have belonged to us in the first place; and so what has been lost is only a mere moment. Therefore, these two things must be remembered: first, that all things are eternally of the same and they recur in cycles...Second, that the longest to live and the soonest to die lose exactly the same thing, for it is only the present moment which one can be deprived of, if it is true that we possess this alone, and that you cannot lose what you do not have."

• 3.4 "Do not waste what remains of your life with anxiety about others, unless you can elevate those thoughts and bring them in relation to some common good. For otherwise you will surely neglect some other important task, when you worry in this way about what some clever person is doing and why...all such thoughts and worries which distract you from keeping watch over yourguiding part."

Reading about philosophy is so much easier than applying it to action and that is something that Marcus Aurelius acknowledged in his writings. However, he went to great lengths to maintain a humble life-style even with all the luxuries his title afforded. Thus, if we can take one thing away from his writings, it's that we have only one life to live. Enjoy the moments but don't abuse them.

In the modern context, the "abuse" in my opinion comes in the form of consumerism. We consume, television, music, mochas and facebook, yet how many of us actually produce something? How many can play an instrument, sing, edit home movies, write or make handiwork? The percentage would generously be, what? 1%?

The reason for that I believe is because our culture conditions us to believe that we are immortal. And so in that mind-frame we procrastinate our life away until one day we wake up in a hospital room but it's to late:




Thinking about our mortality grounds us and helps us to make better calculating decisions. In the same way that playing poker with fake chips is vastly different from playing with real money. The latter makes us stop and question our bets cause we have tangible property to lose...

How much greater then do we lose in a life in which we didn't produce a damn thing of consequence?

If you don't want to get a physical copy of the Meditations you may read and download it (thanks to MIT) [here.]


Read More: On Boredom Life and Death


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