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.


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.