A stone bust of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius

The Wisdom of Marcus Aurelius

Those who occupy high political office are not popularly regarded as people of exceptional wisdom or insight. Many of us tend to feel cynicism and distrust towards politicians and their craft – attitudes which have undoubtedly been shaped by the preponderance of self-interest, ideology, and power considerations in politics.

Though power has always attracted – and created – its share of rogues, the field of politics wasn’t always considered the domain of either aspiring tyrants or village fools. Over the ages there have been many thinkers and leaders that have served the both discipline of politics, and humanity, well.

We’re embarking on a series of blog posts about some of the more notable of those personalities that aim to show that politics can be a domain where both wisdom and excellence can manifest.

One of those people was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived between 121 AD – 180 AD. Aurelius, who ruled in the last two decades of his life, is best known today for his personal philosophical writings, now commonly known as Meditations. Those journal-like reflections rooted in the ancient Stoic philosophy have been praised by fellow writers, poets and politicians, throughout the millennia.

In some ways, Aurelius lived in a time not unlike our own. Although he ruled at the very end of the Pax Romana – an age of relative stability for the Empire – it was also a time of increasing troubles marked by plagues, famines, floods and wars on Rome’s flanks. Yet he is said to have practiced his craft with a deftness and calm driven by his unrelenting pursuit of personal equilibrium and truth for its own sake. At home, he was known as a just and conscientious lawmaker. While on military campaigns abroad, he was not just a brave soldier but also a natural diplomat with a deeply sensitive and flexible outlook towards his adversaries.

But it was his sincere and unrelenting self-reflection and scrutiny brought to bear upon his own life and work that sets him apart from other rulers. While leading an army in the boggy lowlands of the Danube, Aurelius wrote his Meditations as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. His journal, known simply as “To Himself,” is a repository of his musings about the deeper undercurrents in life. Aurelius sought to learn from the world around him, including from his mistakes, in an attempt to do – and be – better. This was a recurring theme in his writings:

“If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.”

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 “We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it? What does Nature hold dearer, or more proper to herself? Could you have a hot bath unless the firewood underwent some change? Could you be nourished if the food suffered no change? Is it possible for any useful thing to be achieved without change? Do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of the same order, and no less necessary to Nature.”

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“To change your mind and defer to correction is not to sacrifice your independence; for such an act is your own, in pursuance of your own impulse, your own judgement, and our own thinking.”

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Celebrated as a literary monument to truth from a saintly warrior, Meditations became a favourite of such rulers and thinkers as Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, and Goethe. His dedication to lifelong learning, reflection and the adjustment of his thinking and behaviour to correspond with the truths he discerned makes him an example to emulate for those looking to bring excellence back into the craft of politics and diplomacy.

“Alone of the emperors,” wrote the historian Herodian, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”

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