Today in Literary History – March 17, 180 – Marcus Aurelius dies

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, died on March 17 in the year 180. Apart from his historical prominence as emperor and military leader Marcus is important for his book of advice and aphorisms which is commonly known as Meditations. Marcus wrote it in Greek during the twenty years that he was emperor, mostly in his last decade while on long military campaigns to keep his empire from fracturing.

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Meditations is really more a series of notebooks (or what we might call journals today) that Marcus intended to keep to remind himself of the good advice he had been given over his life and as a memento of the proper conduct and patterns of humility and self-awareness that would lead to a happy and honourable life.

Marcus never intended for his notebooks to be published, but after his death they began to be circulated. Today, Meditations is widely read as a “self-improvement” guide and as a map toward being a good person. I’ve read it several times in different translations. I wish that I could say that I followed its principles, but even the easiest of them are difficult and the difficult ones are nearly impossible, and in light of modern ethics, perhaps undesirable.

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Marcus’s main theme is that even if we don’t always have the power over what happens to us or how people treat us, we do have the power to control how we react. He told himself that no one could harm him by their actions unless he reacted to those actions with bitterness, regret or self-pity.

He also believed in what he called “logos,” which can be taken as spirit, fate or the will of god. Avoiding extremes of self-indulgence or self-love and “being good,” that is following an ethical code, is the only path to happiness. This is a basic lesson of Stoicism.

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His advice to himself: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”

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