The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Under law made will the world reposed
And the ruler’s right confessed,
For the heavens elected the Emperor then,
The foremost of men the best.
–Melville, “The Age of the Antonines”

The Emperor kept a diary and lectured himself as best he could in the words of his tutors. These meditations are numbered entries, twelve books in all, without organization or smooth development. As the thoughts occurred to him or were useful, he made an entry and lectured himself.

The Stoics were his masters. He accepted the teaching of Heraclitus on the constant change of the world: “There is a kind of river of things passing into being and Time is a violent torrent. For no sooner is each seen, than it has been carried away, and another is being carried by, and that, too, will be carried away.” (IV, 43.)

Plainly accepting life’s limits should govern the way of living. “At the time of each separate act, stop and ask yourself whether death is to be feared because you are deprived of this.” (X, 29.)¬†“Don’t let it be possible for anyone to say of you truthfully that you are not simple and good, but let him be a liar who thinks any of these things about you. And this entirely rests with you; for who prevents your being good and simple?” (X, 32.)

He dismissed Christianity famously in one sentence (XI, 3), but came to be seen as an unconscious prophet. Marcus was not on speaking terms with the Preacher, as far as we know, but the reader of Ecclesiastes will hear echoes in these meditations. The books overlap, or rather, the Meditations are contained within the biblical text, which is richer for acknowledging the Creator’s will and reminding one to find joy in life before the end. The Emperor was just waiting it out.

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