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.
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?
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.