Freedom from Deception

Written on October 22, 2007 by Santiago Iñiguez in Philosophy

Santiago Iniguez

Marcus Aurelius (121-180), Meditations

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 movie 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 looses 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

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?


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