Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – Selections From Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, born in Rome in the year 121, was loved and admired even in his own day as no other Roman emperor ever was. He was adopted by the emperor Antoninus, and on the death of the latter, in 161, he ascended the throne. He has been the admiration of the whole world ever since that time. He was not only great as a statesman and ruler, but his life as a private man was even more admirable. There was in him a fine simplicity, sincerity, purity, fidelity to duty, dignity, and a most potent personal charm. He shows the union of the best qualities of the man of action and the man of thought.

These few extracts from his book of ” Meditations ” show us his personality. This book was written during the last years of the emperor’s life and under the pressure of heavy toil in the face of increasing bodily weakness and domestic sorrow. It was never intended for the public eye, but was merely his own thoughts, addressed to himself alone, because he found the writing an aid to serenity in his many afflictions. Not until the fourteenth century did it come into the possession of the world. The ” Meditations ” have been called ” the most geniune expression in all literature of the peace of a really triumphant soul — the true peace of God.”

As Antoninus, my city and country is Rome, but as a man, the universe.—Book VI.

Whatever is harmonious to thee is harmonious to me, 0 Universe. For me nothing is too early and nothing is too late which is seasonable for thee. All is fruit for me, 0 Nature, that thy seasons bear. From thee are all things, in thee they exist, to thee they shall return. Does the poet say, ” Dear city of Cecrops,” and wilt thou not exclaim, ” Beloved city of God”? — Book IV:

” Do few things,” says some one, ” if you would have tranquillity.” A better rule, methinks, is, ” Do only what is necessary, what the reason of a social being demands and in the way it directs.” This brings the tranquillity that comes of doing a few things and doing them well. In each case one should ask one’s self, ” Is this one of the necessary things?”—Book IV.

Whatever any one else may do or say, I must be good ; just as the emerald forever says, ” Let others do or say what they please, I must remain an emerald and keep my proper luster.”—Book VII.

Do not be ashamed to accept assistance. You should do your appointed work as a soldier storms a breach. What if you are lame and cannot scale the battlement alone? You may be able to do so with another’s help. — Book VII.

When any one does you a wrong, set yourself at once to consider what was the point of view, good or bad, that led him astray. As soon as you see it, you will be sorry for him, not surprised or angry. It may be your own opinion of good is the same as his, or very much like it; then you will make allowance for him. Or, if you do not share his views of good and evil, you will the more easily be charitable to his mistake. — Book VII

Dig within. Within you is a fountain of good, welling up perpetually if you always dig.—Book VII.

Whatever is beautiful owes its beauty to itself, and in itself it is complete ; praise has nothing whatever to do with it, for it is made neither better nor worse by being praised.

This is true of the common forms of beauty, such as material objects, for instance, and works of art. What is truly beautiful needs nothing outside itself to make it so, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or self-respect. Can any of these be beautified by praise or marred by censure? Is the emerald less perfect if one praises it not? or is gold, or ivory, or purple ? a lyre or a dagger? a flower or a shrub? —Book IV.

Watch well the grace and charm that belong even to the consequences of nature’s work. For example, when a loaf of bread is baked, cracks and crevices appear in the crust, and the clefts thus produced, though not designed by the baker, are attractive and stimulate the appetite.

Figs also, when they are quite ripe, begin to crack. In ripe olives the very nearness to decay lends a peculiar beauty; so with the bending ear of corn, the frowning brow of the lion, the foam that drips from the wild boar’s mouth, and many other things which, considered by themselves, are far from beautiful, yet, looked at as the consequences of nature’s work, add new beauty and appeal to the soul ; so that if one has sympathy with the workings of the universe, and insight into them, everything connected with them will be seen to have a beauty of its own. For eyes thus skilled to see, age also in man or woman will have its own loveliness, as well as the exquisite charms of youth.

These things will not appeal to all, but only to him who is at home with nature and her works.—Book III.

How goes it with your inner self ? That is every-thing. All else, whether under your control or not, is as dust and ashes.

You have lived, man, as a citizen of the great world-city. Five years or seventy, what matters it ? To every man his due, as the law allots. Why, then, protest ? No tyrant gives you your dismissal, no unjust judge, but nature who led you into the city. Surely the praetor who engaged the player can dismiss him from the stage. ” But,” say you, ” the five acts are not complete ; I have played but three.” Good ; life’s drama, look you, is complete, then, in three. The completeness is in His hands who caused your entrance and now your dismissal ; you are responsible for neither. Serenely take your leave; serene is He who gives you your discharge. — Book XII.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (au re’li us an to ni’nus). —City of Cecrops (se^krops) : Athens. Tradition makes Cecrops the first king of Athens.