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Literature and Ideas

Live More Like the Olive

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who wanted to be a Stoic philosopher. Unlike his predecessors, he co-opted others to rule jointly over the Empire alongside him — first his adoptive brother, then his son — and so scraped together time to philosophise. His most famous work, the Meditations, was written as a collection of notes-to-self (and is, indeed, now often seen stocked on the self-help shelves of bookstores, next to Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill, despite the fact that his discipline was rather more austere than the teachings of those 20th-century preachers of the prosperity gospel), and not in Latin, but in Greek, the language of the cultured classes of Rome. It did not explicate a new or comprehensive system of thought, but assumed, as previous Stoics had taught, that forbearance and mastery of one’s own desires and mental impulses offered the surest route to contentment: it was a handbook of ideas and techniques that Marcus Aurelius used to keep himself grounded and composed under the pressure of his unsought position of authority, never intended for publication. In the extract below, he returns to the central themes of equanimity and how it can be cultivated by viewing the inevitable transition from life to death as a natural process, not to be sought or shunned, but accepted:

It repays frequent reflection to consider how many doctors have passed away after having spent their lives furrowing their brows at the bedsides of dying patients, how many astrologers have passed away after having predicted, with great confidence, the deaths of others, how many philosophers after having given thousands of pronouncements on death and the afterlife, how many chieftains after having slain hordes of their enemies, how many kings after having wielded the power of life and death, with the supreme and snorting arrogance of the all but immortal— indeed, how many entire cities, if I may put it so bluntly, have died, such as Helike, Pompeii, Herculaneum and innumerable others.

Then list, one after another, the many people that you have personally known: one man took care of another's burial only then to die himself and be buried by yet another, all within a tiny span of time. In short, look upon all human affairs as cheap and ephemeral: yesterday we were but blobs of mucus and tomorrow we will be on the embalming slab or the funeral pyre. So be in accordance with nature as you pass through this briefest opening of time, and you will come to a peaceful end, just as an olive ripens and falls, in reverence to the ground that nurtured it and in thanks to the tree that fruited it.
ἐννοεῖν συνεχῶς πόσοι μὲν ἰατροὶ ἀποτεθνήκασι, πολλάκις τὰς ὀφρῦς ὑπὲρ τῶν ἀρρώστων συσπάσαντες: πόσοι δὲ μαθηματικοί, ἄλλων θανάτους ὥς τι μέγα προειπόντες: πόσοι δὲ φιλόσοφοι, περὶ θανάτου ἢ ἀθανασίας μυρία διατεινάμενοι: πόσοι δὲ ἀριστεῖς, πολλοὺς ἀποκτείναντες: πόσοι δὲ τύραννοι, ἐξουσίᾳ ψυχῶν μετὰ δεινοῦ φρυάγματος ὡς ἀθάνατοι κεχρημένοι: πόσαι δὲ πόλεις ὅλαι, ἵν̓ οὕτως εἴπω, τεθνήκασιν, Ἑλίκη καὶ Πομπήιοι καὶ Ἡρκλᾶνον καὶ ἄλλαι ἀναρίθμητοι. ἔπιθι δὲ καὶ ὅσους οἶδας, ἄλλον ἐπ̓ ἄλλῳ: ὁ μὲν τοῦτον κηδεύσας εἶτα ἐξετάθη, ὁ δὲ ἐκεῖνον, πάντα δὲ ἐν βραχεῖ. τὸ γὰρ ὅλον, κατιδεῖν ἀεὶ τὰ ἀνθρώπινα ὡς ἐφήμερα καὶ εὐτελῆ καὶ ἐχθὲς μὲν μυξάριον, αὔριον δὲ τάριχος ἢ τέφρα. τὸ ἀκαριαῖον οὖν τοῦτο τοῦ χρόνου κατὰ φύσιν διελθεῖν καὶ ἵλεων καταλῦσαι, ὡς ἂν εἰ ἐλαία πέπειρος γενομένη ἔπιπτεν, εὐφημοῦσα τὴν ἐνεγκοῦσαν καὶ χάριν εἰδυῖα τῷ φύσαντι δένδρῳ.

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