There’s nothing new under the sun – and not much new on this blog either. I go to write about a topic and do a little search – and lo! I find three posts on the same subject without even trying. But so what? I mean, how closely are you paying attention anyway?
I’m kidding. I know you’re all taking notes.
So, today’s topic is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a stoic; which in many ways is not a philosophy I’m drawn to: I’m not much enamoured of cold showers or camping in the snow and I absolutely decline to whisper as I kiss my children good night, ‘tomorrow you might be dead.’ (I tell myself that child mortality was much higher in his time than now – but that’s not the reason. The reason is that I simply can’t contemplate it.)
But I can contemplate things which are happening at the moment – at least to some extent. I’m not sure what M A would have made of the constant negative outpouring of news to which we are subjected 24/7; I suspect he would have rationed his intake of it just as I try to do. I don’t wish to be callous; I know the situation in Syria is appalling but I don’t want to hear about it every day: I know austerity is causing suffering but there’s only so much of it I can read about. When I find myself becoming angry, frustrated, depressed or anguished I simply turn it off, reflecting that while we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about what is going on, that responsibility needs to be balanced with protecting one’s own mental health.
But where Marcus comes in really handy for me is in the personal arena; and the saying I’m focussing on right now is this:
‘Love only what happens. No greater harmony.’
Of course you can see a problem right away: how can I possibly ‘love’ some of the terrible things that happen to me? How can I ‘love’ a partner’s gender dysphoria or a son’s mental illness or a total lack of money? Well, in order to do this you have to dig deeper. You have to believe that underlying every life event is a purpose, and that that purpose is for your own highest good.
I wouldn’t presume to say this to anyone else; and neither, incidentally, did old Marcus: his sayings were written for his own use only. It’s quite heartwarming to read, across the millennia, a man writing to himself things like ‘for god’s sake stop!’ and ‘when will you ever learn?’ I can remember writing similarly frustrated exhortations to myself in my old diaries.
That a Roman Emperor who wielded power over much of the known world should find the time for reflection and the humility to chastise himself, is truly astonishing. To put his advice another way, ‘If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.’ That quote is from Leonard Cohen who, despite his sexual proclivities, was in many ways a stoic, able to look death and disaster in the face and know them for what they are:
Here’s some more information on Marcus Aurelius:
and a load of good sayings of his:
Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if the title character of ‘About a Boy’ was named for Marcus Aurelius? He is after all a great stoic: