It is rare to find a writing emperor, but even more an emperor that would have wished to have been a philosopher rather than wear the purple. This is the case of Marcus Aurelius, known as the last good emperor of the Antonine's dynasty in the second century of our era, at a time when the Roman Empire was besieged by barbarians. You may be familiar with his image if you have been in Rome and visited Capitol Hill, where his colossal equestrian statute, made of bronze, remains because early Christians believed it represented St. Peter.
Marcus Aurelius lived in times when Rome was experiencing both internal and external turbulence. Internally, different political and cultural opposing streams concurred: in religion, the fight between defendants of the old faith in Roman deities and Christians was starting to erode old beliefs associated with old Roman customs and Law; in philosophy, stoics, epicureans, and supporters of imported doctrines of Plato and other Greek philosophers contended to become the standard. Marcus Aurelius was, by education and self-cultivation, a stoic. Basically, stoics defended personal self-control, the subjection of the own senses to the mind, the acceptance of nature –they professed some sort of pantheism- and of given state of things, in order to achieve perfection. Thus, stoics opposed epicureans and hedonists.
This spirit influences Marcus Aurelius “Meditations”, which exude some form of holiness and sanctity. In fact, at his death, after a battle on the Danube Front (the hit move Gladiator here at least was accurate), he was declared sacred, being the last Roman emperor to be considered part of the deities. Why did he write this book? The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy explains that “by reflecting upon philosophical ideas and, perhaps more importantly, writing them down, Marcus engages in a repetitive process designed to habituate his mind into a new way of thinking”. Indeed, many of the maxims sound repetitive, but they may be recommendable at times when managers have to face deception, failures or any other sort of setback. I include a selection:
- “II.1. Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial (…) I can neither be harmed by any of them (…) for we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth”.
- “II.5. …Do every act of your life as it were the last”.
- “II.14. Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man losses any other life than this which now lives, or lives any other than this which he now loses”.
An advice to those who look for places to retire and recharge the batteries –I declare myself guilty of this, since I am writing these lines at my little house in the country:
- “IV.3 Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains, and you too are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the common sort of man, for it is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself.”
A further piece of advice to cultivate modesty; valuable since it comes from an Emperor:
- “IV.3. But perhaps a longing for the thing called fame torments you. See how soon everything is forgotten; look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and poor judgement of those who pretend to praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is confined. For the whole earth is but a point and in that how small a nook is this your dwelling, and how few are there within it, and what kind of people are they who will praise you?”
However, there are two aspects of Marcus Aurelius personality, which do not fit with the pure thoughts of the “Meditations”. First, he devoted most of his life to warfare. Second, his son Commodus, who became his successor, was not a very good apprentice, since he became one of the most deplorable emperors of Rome. However, this happens in the best of families, doesn’t it?
You'll be a Man, my son
Rudard Kipling: "If"