Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from AD 161-180. Throughout his life he kept a book of meditations, really just a series of random thoughts, that largely followed the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of his day.
Today, thanks to some fantastic Greek and Latin scholars, we can still read much of what Aurelius was thinking and writing nearly 2 millennia ago. The manuscript that has survived, published under the simple title “Meditations”, was most likely compiled by Aurelius during his final military campaign to the German frontier between 175 and 179. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre of ancient wisdom literature it reads a little like the Biblical book of Proverbs, only less poetic and more disjointed. Reading Meditations today is bit like trying to follow a squirrel on crack cocaine as Aurelius jumps from one unrelated thought to another.
But if you slow down enough to examine and consider each thought before moving on to the next, you can begin to recognize much from our modern world within the Stoic and Epicurean philosophy of late antiquity.
This morning, during my reading time, one of these thoughts struck me as a great lesson for each of us during these times.
Apply your thoughts to what is being said. Let your mind enter into what is coming to pass and what is causing it to be.Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180)
In other words, pay attention, think about what is going on and try to figure out why.
We live in an age of conspiracy theories, alternative facts, populism, and arrogance. Evidence based policy, nuanced reasoning, and compromise is becoming a thing of the past. The COVID19 pandemic and the politics of public health has only served to amplify these issues. Solutions to today’s problems are not black and white, and they will not be found by succumbing to the populist fears of Orwellian overlords, or end times theories about the mark of the beast and the reign of Satan.
We must learn to get comfortable with discomfort and hold seemingly contradictory ideas together before we can find a path forward. The answers to today’s problems are not binary. We cannot continue to form a path by answering questions as right and wrong. The decisions of tomorrow will be made between options that are “less bad”.
For the Stoics and Epicureans life was not a question of good and evil, it was a question of fate and survival. It is high time we let go of our childish ideals of right and wrong and instead embraced a more nuanced understanding what it means to survive.
The world is not black and white, and the goal should not be to live anything close to a perfect life.
In many ways the Stoics had it right; the goal is survival, and the path is unclear.