A Visit From the Philosopher Emperor

Marcus 1I find it hard to believe that it is almost March, and that this year I’ve only managed to get fingers to keys here in my small patch of cyberspace twice. I thought, when I began this post, that it was going to be about Virginia Woolf — but as you will see, it didn’t turn out that way at all.

Last year I threw myself into the effort of picking a Word of the Month each month and mulling it over, drawing out the meaning I found in it and making sense of how it fitted into my life. I considered doing something similar this year, but found myself unable to settle on a theme.

I did wonder, after watching Gladiator for the umpteenth time, whether I could focus on a list of lesser-sung qualities or pseduo-virtues, much like those offered in the film by Commodus to his dying father, Marcus Aurelius, but know myself well enough to realise I am not the sort of person to hold up ambition as something to aspire to. Ambition may have its purpose and its place, but I am much more likely to agree with Marcus Aurelius himself, the last of the Five Good Emperors, that wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance form the cornerstones of a good character. More to the point, I am also aware that many people have written about such ideals since…well, quite obviously, since Roman times.

I then began pondering whether I would write a series of monthly posts at all.  I don’t mind working under pressure and am generally unfazed by deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), but with a new school and work year offering a far more complicated set of variables than I have had to deal with in recent times, the prospect of a more fluid approach than that I had in 2018 had real appeal. After all, these are meant to the musings — rather than the rantings — of the Daydream Believer, and the prospect of committing to a  monthly post seemed a little, as Commodus might have put it, ambitious.

Marcus 2So, having unfettered myself from all sorts of strictures, I gave myself permission to meander down some old Roman roads, following the trail of the Philosopher Emperor and his wayward son.  Commodus, according to Cassius Dio (who witnessed his actions and antics firsthand), was “not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.” Ouch.

On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius is generally well remembered: he was the last of the Roman Emperors to be associated with the Pax Romana — a period of relative peace and stability through the Roman Empire which, almost miraculously, lasted for more than two centuries. Our old friend Cassius Dio says that after Marcus Aurelius died, the Roman Empire turned “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.

Before he departed this life, however, that old Stoic Marcus Aurelius had some things to say that are quite possibly as relevant today as when he wrote them, back in the second century.  “The soul,” he said, “becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”

These, history tells us, are some of the thoughts which coloured Marcus Aurelius’ soul:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

You have power over your mind — not outside events.  Realise this, and you will find strength.

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.

They’re not bad are they? It’s probably a shame that Commodus didn’t listen to his dear old Dad…but at least history has preserved Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Cassius Dio’s Roman History for us all to dip into whenever we wish to.

Marcus 3So that’s what I think I’ll be getting up to this year: delving into the thoughts of people who I happen to find interesting, diving into the depths and exploring topics and stories and ideas I find intriguing. I suspect that Virginia Woolf might get a look in somewhere — I know she tried to today, but Commodus must have had other ideas — and maybe Frida Kahlo, and Ursula Le Guin and goodness knows who else I happen to encounter.

It will be a twisting, turning, and somewhat eclectic journey, I’d imagine, but this — as always — is an open invitation to join me and whoever I visit along the way.

 

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