Meditations of a Philosopher-King

At the Roman Forum a few weeks ago, economist Mark Skousen — dressed in a toga — was delivering his “Persuasion vs. Force” talk to our group, when a passerby stopped to heckle him loudly.

Skousen continued with his eloquent plea for freedom and tolerance unperturbed, asking only that the heckler hold his remarks until the end. Which was fitting…

The Forum was one of the first places in ancient times where ordinary citizens had the right to stand up and publicly voice their opinions, even unpopular ones.

Our group, which had been touring the Mediterranean as part of the “Cradle of Civilization” tour, endured the heckler because, as Freud noted, the first human to hurl an insult instead of a rock was the founder of civilization.

Visiting these ancient ruins gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with Rome’s history and one of its great philosophers, Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus was Emperor of Rome for two decades before succumbing to the plague in 180 A.D.

He was the most powerful man of his day, ruling an empire that stretched from Western Europe to the Middle East and Africa. During his reign, he defended Rome against barbarians, invading tribes, pestilence, and plague at every border.

Yet, in those quiet moments of leisure when he was able to take off the mantle of Emperor, he also composed one of the world’s great works of Stoic philosophy: his Meditations.

The book is essentially an inner dialogue. Marcus wrote solely for himself, not posterity. His goal was to face up to the world, define the good life, and develop a manual for daily living.

His words still resonate today. Here is just a sampling:

  • If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.
  • Be like the jutting rock against which waves are constantly crashing, and all around it the frothing foam then settles back down. Say not “Oh, I am so unfortunate that this has happened to me.” But rather “How fortunate I am that, even though this has happened to me, I continue uninjured, neither terrified by the present nor in fear of the future.”
  • Never consider anything to be beneficial to you which could ever compel you to violate your faith in yourself, to abandon your modesty, to hate anybody, to be overly suspicious, cursing, disingenuous, or to lust after anything which must be hidden behind walls or veils.
  • Wisdom and right action are the same thing.
  • Whenever you notice someone else going astray, immediately turn and examine how you yourself have gone astray, for example, esteeming money, pleasure, reputation, or something else, as if it were the highest good. Examine yourself in this way and you will quickly forget your anger.
  • People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, and near the mountains, and you too are especially prone to desire such things. But this is a sign of ignorance, since you have the power to retire within yourself whenever you wish. For nowhere can a person retire more full of peace and free from care than into his own soul.
  • Kindness is unconquerable, so long as it is without flattery or hypocrisy. For what can the most insolent man do to you if you continue to be kind to him?
  • The noblest way of taking revenge on others is by refusing to become like them.
  • If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is wrong, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one ever was truly harmed.
  • Someone else may ask: “How may I possess that?” But you should ask: “How may I not covet that?” Someone else asks: “How can I be rid of him?” But you: “How can I not wish to be rid of him?” Another: “How may I not lose my little child?” But you: “How may I not dread the loss of my child?” Turn your prayers around entirely, and see what happens.

On every page, Marcus Aurelius shows extraordinary insight and humility, his words transcending the boundaries of time and place. No wonder his Meditations are among the best known and most widely read works of antiquity.

The message is simple and direct, but powerful. He values inner strength, dignity, and self-respect. He reminds us that life can end at any moment, that the past and the future are inaccessible, that we are made better by confronting difficult conditions with resolution and courage, and that our most important goal is our own private quest for perfection.

Over the past eighteen hundred years, his words have helped millions face up to the setbacks, cravings, triumphs, and disappointments that are the lot of every human life.

Marcus Aurelius wastes no time on airy theories or speculations. The measure of a philosopher, he believed, was not his discourses but his way of living.

As he writes in the Meditations, “Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one.”

[Ed. Note: Alex Green is the author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, as well as the editor of “Spiritual Wealth,” a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.