In my ongoing quest to read the Harvard Classics and Great Books of the Western World, I recently read two short works that could very well comprise a planned pair across languages, cultures, and centuries. Both William Penn, British entrepreneur of the 17th century, and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century, have left didactic manuals of living well, each taking the form of a series of loosely connected maxims. Penn authored Some Fruits of Solitude; Aurelius his immortal Meditations.
Both manuals are typically pious, practical, and assert our ability to master the world around us in some way. However, where Penn relates his life’s wisdom to us in statements of morality so simple that they were probably already clichés in his day (“Be good and do nice things”-style advice), Aurelius gives us a dynamic, challenging web of rules that would transform life into a noble adventure. He may not have invented Stoicism, but he certainly gave history its most memorable phrasing.
Consider these four representative quotes from the first book of Penn’s Fruits of Solitude, which I noted because they were actually among the most useful and memorable lines:
165. There are some Men like Dictionaries; to be lookt into upon occasions, but have no Connection, and are little entertaining.
184. It were endless to dispute upon everything that is disputable.
256. Unless Virtue guide us, our Choice must be wrong.
489. The truest end of Life, is, to know the Life that never ends.
Good, sure, but hardly the stuff of legend. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, frequently discourses in his book, in digestable snippets, on the cosmic nature of our physical connection to the universe (and the peace of mind that such realization can engender as it detaches us from the stresses of magnifying the present), as well as sharing friendly little adages about what to do when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out of bed:
IN the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bedclothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? (V.1)
We can all relate to that particular situation, I’m sure, as well as to another favorite area for Marcus’s counsel: how to calmly manage a life surrounded by stupid people:
BEGIN the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not [only] of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in [the same] intelligence and [the same] portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. (II.1)
These two passages well encapsulate much of the philosophy of the Meditations: we are in total control of our world because nothing external can force us to change the way we feel or think, and a simple, rational perspective towards mortality—keeping material involvement simple, interacting with others peacefully, and not obsessing over things we can’t control—will help us to live with tranquility, always flexible in response to whatever is thrown at us.
Marcus Aurelius is Stephen Covey meeting Bruce Lee.
Truly, Gibbon wrote of him in chapter III of his Decline and Fall that, “The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of a severer and more laborious kind. It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration. At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external, as things indifferent. His meditations, composed in the tumult of a camp, are still extant…”
And the winner is: Marcus Aurelius, hands down.