Marcus Aurelius is Probably Rolling in His Grave

Marcus Aurelius

In Marcus Aurelius’ collection of personal writings, commonly known as Meditations, two recurring themes that weaved their way through the entire work were death and fame.

In a sense, he wrote “characters”, versions of himself, that spoke to each other: a poorly guided soul and a wise man who holds the keys to being a virtuous human being. The former is always a bit confused but willing to learn about how he could better himself; the latter proudly wears an authoritative tone, often scolding the former and expressing his wisdom with an unmistakable finality. While Marcus Aurelius did not always structure his writings as back-and-forth conversations, it was fascinating to explore the deepest, darkest corners of a Roman Emperor’s heart and mind through internal monologues.

He asserted indefatigably that death is nothing to fear but merely an ordinary event that marks the end of life. It must be accepted as easily as we accept the fact that the sun rises in the morning and the sun sets at night. No matter who or what you are, no matter how much importance you attach to any one thing or person, it is only a matter of time before everything turns to dust and fades into eternal nothingness. It is an unequivocal fact of life.

“Human life.

Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.

Then what can guide us?

Only philosophy.

Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.”

Death often stirs within us the need to dwell over our legacies. Ask Marcus what he thought and he would say worrying about your legacy is a waste of time, something we only have so much of. Simply live your life in the moment; its ephemeral nature should not unsettle you.

“Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus . . . Scipio and Cato . . . Augustus . . . Hadrian and Antoninus, and . . . 

Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest — “unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness. 

Then what should we work for? 

Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.”

I wonder how he would’ve felt knowing that his words, which were never intended for public eyes, would live on almost 1900 years after his death and likely continue to inspire future generations. Unfortunately for him, he has carved out a shining legacy for himself. Who knows if his fame will be eternal, the least we can say is that it’s enduring. Oh, the irony.

The above quotes were taken from Gregory Hay’s translation of Meditations.


Who Deserves Second Chances?

Meeting an ex-con reformed criminal type that’s now leading a life full of hope and meaning is cause for deep admiration. But what if we met them while they were indulging in reckless, bad, or even utterly deplorable behaviour? We’d write them off as scourges on society, people to lock up and avoid forever. Who wants to think about rehabilitation and second chances? We revel in their punishment and take pleasure in seeing them suffer for the way they’ve wronged the world.

Recently, I learned about Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll, a convicted murderer who has spent the better part of his life in jail. Despite his dark past, he is living an inspiring story of redemption, all from within the walls of San Quentin State Prison.

These stories inspire us. They lift us up and warm us from the inside out. We tell ourselves, if this guy can turn his life around even after all his mistakes and hardships, I can do it too! It really is beautiful to see someone go from rock bottom to flying on top of the world. But it’s only after they’ve changed that we appreciate their struggles and forgive their transgressions.

Yes, there are monsters that are beyond forgiving, people that could burn to ashes and you wouldn’t shed a tear. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would give Jeffrey Dahmer or Hitler a second chance, for example. But setting those exceptions aside, ask yourself: “Am I so different? Am I really a ‘better’ person? Would I have made the same mistakes if I were in their shoes? How have my circumstances shaped my journey?”

What if the person Carroll murdered when he was a teenager was a loved one of yours? Could you appreciate the person he is today and feel inspired by his message? What if you met Carroll after he murdered your loved one but could peak into his future as a changed man – how would you feel? Could you forgive him?

I realize this post raises more (uncomfortable) questions than answers – I myself don’t have the answers. Questions about how fundamentally different I really am from criminals and misfits have been flitting about in my mind like butterflies for years.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the great Maya Angelou from her 1995 interview with Linda Wolf for IN CONTEXT journal:

“Well, I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. Only the angels, the cherubim, and about three rocks don’t make mistakes. You’re going to do that.

But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, “I’m sorry,” to the people who you think you may have injured, and then you say to yourself, “I’m sorry,” and then you can like yourself again.

Quite often if we hold onto the mistake we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror, so we can’t see what we’re capable of being. It is equally important to see the mistake and to forgive oneself for it. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end, the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.

I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now when a larger society sees you as unattractive, as a threat, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat, or too sexual, or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.”

Learn more about Curtis Carroll and his philosophy on financial literacy.


Linda E. Ginzel on Leadership and Skyscrapers

Linda E. Ginzel, Clinical Professor of Managerial Psychology at University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-founder of Kids in Danger, gives an address to 2017 Executive MBA graduates entitled, “Skyscrapers and Leadership: Rising Above Load-Bearing Assumptions.”

It’s definitely worth watching the whole thing.

“In the classroom, we speak often about frameworks that allow us to think complexly about business issues across industries, economies, and geographies. When I teach leadership, I emphasize building our own personal frameworks. When we create our own structures and reduce our reliance on externally provided ones, we increase our ability to handle ambiguity. Creating our own frameworks can help us to be wiser, younger, to learn more from our everyday experience and what we learn can better inform our choices. Frameworks can help each of us to create a better future. Just like a skyscraper’s strength comes from its core, the clarity, vision, and support for your own framework must come from your core. Your classroom now is the world outside these hallowed halls, there’s no blueprint for your future.

In architecture, structural integrity is established during the planning phase and built into the foundation. William Le Baron Jenney taught us to build up by building from within. Leaving here, you will need that same kind of structural integrity, build from within, build your frame with strong values, build with unselfishness, with kindness, with curiosity, build with open-mindedness to new ideas, with compassion, with a sense of fairness. Your own inner framework will determine how high you can go.”

Random observation: She has an interesting way of articulating. Slow, deliberate, clear, soft-spoken – like a mother sweetly uplifting her children. I also noticed that her voice would quiver at a few points in the speech. I wonder if she was getting emotional or if that’s just the way she talks.


Wisdom in the Art of War

Sun Tzu’s perennial military treatise, the Art of War, has slid in and out of my consciousness over the years. I don’t remember the exact moment I’d heard about it for the first time, but it certainly was a long time ago.

I never understood why people liked to glorify war. My aversion to war and the inevitable tragic outcomes that come from it kept me from reading Sun Tzu’s (English: Master Sun) magnum opus but I can’t deny that a slight curiosity was always there, tickling the back of my mind ever so gently. It’s enduring status as a classic must-read intrigued me.

To the people who know me: I realize my interest in martial arts and enjoyment in watching fighters pulverize each other’s faces on TV might be seen as hypocritical given my views on war. But that’s another discussion…perhaps best reserved for another blog that no one will read.

The manner in which Sun Tzu speaks of warfare is so contrary to the typical nature of war itself. The stoicism, philosophy, subtlety and even gentleness that shines through in his words were such that I was taken aback to see the word “killing” in the book (re: “Treat prisoners of war kindly, and care for them”).

What I — and others who have read it— love about the Art of War is that its lessons are not restricted to emerging victorious in a war; you can bring them with you anywhere life takes you.

Here are the ones that stood out to me:

Victory belongs to the side that scores most in the temple calculations before battle. — Chapter 1, Making of Plans

Thinking, calculating, planning, strategizing — everything that goes on in between your ears is what counts the most.

I have heard that in war haste can be folly but have never seen delay that was wise. — Chapter 2, Waging of War

Secure victory as fast as you can — prolonging the fight can have grave consequences.

Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.— Chapter 3, Strategic Offensive

No comment needed.

The victorious army is victorious first and seeks battle later; the defeated army does battle first and seeks victory later.Chapter 4, Forms and Dispositions

You’d better be judicious in your planning if you expect to succeed. Otherwise, you’re fucked (or at least, you won’t get what you aimed for).

I am concentrated into one; he is divided into ten. I am ten to his one; many against his few. — Chapter 6, Empty and Full

I like to relate this to divided attention. If you focus your efforts in ten different directions, you’ll only make small progress on those things. But if you concentrate all your effort into one pursuit, the progress you’ll make on that particular thing will yield significant and meaningful results.

The Skillful Warrior does not rely on the enemy’s not coming, but on his own preparedness. He does not rely on the enemy’s not attacking, but on his own impregnability. — Chapter 8, The Nine Changes

Take charge of your situation to ensure you get what you want. Don’t rely on someone else’s shortcomings, which aren’t guaranteed, to bring you to victory or success.

To the question “How should we confront an enemy, numerous and well arrayed, poised to attack?” My reply is “Seize something he cherishes, and he will do to your will.” Chapter 11, The Nine Kinds of Ground

Can you imagine being a superhero with a lot of villainous enemies bent on your destruction? The fewer people you care about, the less vulnerable you are.

Anger can turn to pleasure; spite can turn to joy. But a nation destroyed cannot be put back together again; a dead man cannot be brought back to life. Chapter 12, Attack by Fire

Anger and spite are fleeting, but broken nations and dead men aren’t. Don’t let those emotions control you and lead you to irreversible consequences.

In terms of word count, the Art of War is bare bones. In terms of meaning, it is limitless.