The warp and woof of human character is formed slowly, through the ages, by the steadfast meeting of individual responsibility, by the daily conquest of the lesser self by the greater. Now and then, in the lives of a few, the splendor that is man stands revealed, the ugly and disfigured in human behavior transmuted, and the routine of existence seen to be as intrinsic a part of the cosmic design as is the regular orbiting of sun and star.
Of late I have been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and have been profoundly moved by the timeless quality that flows through the pages of this small volume. How often it seems as though a sentence or paragraph had been written directly to oneself, and we close the book refreshed, with added strength and even, at times, with practical hints for the task ahead.
Of course, these were not really "meditations" at all, if by the word we conjure up a picture of a yogi or would-be chela, whether of India or America, sitting with fixed gaze in ritual posture in the hope that some great Being will vouchsafe him a vision of supernal truth. No, this is the simple record of an utterly candid soul, not sharing personal or historic details of an extraordinary life at an epochal time — he was Imperator Caesar of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century A.D. — but reminding himself, in the privacy of imperial chamber or military quarters, what it demands of a man to live according to the highest within him.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180 A.D.) was a Stoic, by temperament and by choice, and supreme exemplar of the best in Roman Stoicism, itself a late and somewhat modified form of the original philosophy of its founder Zeno of the 4th-3rd century B.C. To the Stoic, as to the earlier Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus and Anaximander, the "primordial source of Being" was Mind, cognate with the most spiritual essence that man could conceive, namely Fire — not the fire or heat of earth, but its subtle originant. In short, "Mind-Fire" was the ruling principle behind the cosmos and therefore behind every one of its parts, large or small. Thus a "fiery particle" or an "atom of Mind-Fire" was likewise at the core of man. "All is theos," "all is alive": pan-theism in its pure connotation that divinity was the motivating power within all life forms — a theme as familiar to Marcus Aurelius as it was to the whole of antiquity.
In the universe, reverence that which is highest: namely, That to which all else ministers, and which gives the law to all. In like manner, too, reverence the highest in yourself: it is of one piece with the Other, since in yourself also it is that to which all the rest minister, and by which your life is directed. — v, 21. (Maxwell Staniforth's translation, Penguin Classics, L 140, Penguin Books.)
This is not a book to read straight through and then put back on the shelf; one gains infinitely more by keeping it nearby, to open at odd moments and allow whatever thought the eye catches to lift the consciousness unawares.
"Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs?" (vii, 57). For no matter what the world about one may say or do, "my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, . . . 'my part is to remain an emerald and keep my color true'" (vii, 15). No tiresome moralizing here, for there is no audience, no theater of listeners, not a shred of talking down to anyone. just the quiet exhortation always to live up to the master-part within.
Thus, in terse memos "to himself"— which, incidentally, is the actual rendering of the original Greek title of the book — Marcus Aurelius set down his reflections without desire or expectation that others would read, much less profit by them. (Unless, perchance, toward the close of his life during the wars on the Danube where he died, he cherished the hope that his young son Commodus, then with him and whom he loved deeply, might from reading them gain strength and guidance for the onerous task of Emperor soon to fall on his unready head.)
Be this as it may, it is highly significant, that by the very means of the daily reminder to himself to get rid of the personal element, to strip down every longing for worldly acclaim, to serve the needs of his fellow men before his own and, not least, to ally his inmost being with that of the universal order, this noble, self-effacing man not only won lasting fame but the measureless gratitude of posterity.
Perhaps we have Q. Junius Rusticus, Stoic philosopher and law tutor of Marcus, to thank in large part for the self-discipline which his pupil and friend learned to value and to hold as a life ideal. He was severe in the extreme with his young pupil, but as Marcus graciously recalls, he held his tutor in warm esteem to the end, for he had taught him early to avoid all affectation in speech or dress, to read with care and to ponder well what he read and, above all, never to allow anger to go, in himself or in another, without attempting "to make peace again." It was through Rusticus who gave him his own copy that Marcus as a youth became acquainted with Arrian's Discourses of Epictetus.
In these days of trampled ideals, when the most inward yearnings of the heart are made tawdry by exhibitionism, one instinctively shies away from those who profess the loudest when the life lived gives the lie to the plain solid virtues of honor, duty and consideration of others. The world has never lacked pretenders, and just as we are glutted with them today, so 2nd century Rome could have done with fewer sycophants and more down-to-earth citizens willing and concerned enough to apply the saving remedies of hard work, generosity of spirit and a giving of one's best efforts for the good of the whole.
Human nature being what it is, there have been (and still are) those who regarded Marcus Aurelius as cold, vacillating, and even guilty of hypocrisy, but this is to misread his character. Selfless he was, and consistently so, but the record of his rule as emperor, and of his own scrupulous self-censorship as revealed in these notebooks, testifies to the warm humanity of the man — a quality that guided his thoughts and, as far as his position allowed, his actions. (We cannot gloss over the tragic martyrdom of Christians during his principate. Apparently Marcus Aurelius permitted Roman law to take its course and, as a result, Justin and others who refused to yield to civil pressure were punished by death. Lovers of his Meditations have found this an exceedingly bitter problem to rationalize, for it goes completely counter to his known character. We have to remember, however, that fanaticism was rife, both among those who stoutly upheld existing Roman tradition, as well as among the then upstart "defenders of the new faith" who often deliberately provoked their accusers in order to insure their own deaths. — "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.")
On the other hand, Marcus is ever at arm's length from self-pity or self-indulgence; possibly in this lies one cause, at least, for mistrust by those who resent a nobility they themselves lack. As the late Gilbert Murray suggests, "it is hard for most men to breathe at that intense height of spiritual life." (Five Stages of Greek Religion, pp. 168-9.) To him, Marcus is far from cold: "There is as much intensity of feeling [in his expressions] as in most of the nobler modern books of religion, only there is a sterner power controlling it . . . the emotion is severely purged of earthly dross."
We should have liked to make a telling selection of his key thoughts, but this is difficult to do without robbing the book of its singular quahty. All is atmosphere — yet it speaks to the heart a wisdom that is perennially living. However, there is one entry we may note in passing:
Many grains of incense fall on the same altar: one sooner, another later — it makes no difference. — iv, 15
Those who are students of the letters written by two Eastern adepts of the last century — and which collection is presently housed in the Select Manuscripts department of the British Museum — may recall an almost identic passage in a letter dated October 29 (1880) sent to A. P. Sinnett, then at Allahabad, India:
There are more ways than one for acquiring occult knowledge. "Many are the grains of incense destined for one and the same altar: one falls sooner into the fire, the other later — the difference of time is nothing," remarked a great man when he was refused admission and supreme initiation into the mysteries. (The Mahatma Letters, p. 17.)
The fact of the matter is that Marcus, arriving in Athens after a tour of inspection and peace-making which included a visit to Antioch and Alexandria, did undergo an initiation rite at Eleusis in 175 or 176. This had long been a dream of his. As he wrote to his Greek teacher Herodes: "I made a vow, when the war was blazing at its fiercest, that I too would be initiated." (Marcus Aurelius, Anthony Birley, p. 267.) Some scholars believe he made that pledge to himself when he learned that the temple at Eleusis had been destroyed. Later he restored the temple, and also founded in Athens four chairs of philosophy — for Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans.
Whether or not the reference in the Sinnett letter is to Marcus Aurelius or to some other "great man" we do not know. Possibly the quotation is an axiom of the Mystery Tradition from the remote past known also to Marcus. Of one thing we can be sure: to be 'initiated' as Marcus was, and Hadrian before him, was to receive from the experience whatever one might bring to it, no more no less. For the original purity of the Mystery schools had long since vanished through the corruption of interior discipline and the inroads of formalism. Nevertheless, so profound an influence had the Mystery centers exerted that, even as late as the sixth century when the Emperor Justinian finally closed them, the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world still deemed it an honor and a privilege to have their sons partake of the ancient rites.
It may well be that Marcus Aurelius had sincerely hoped to be worthy of the "supreme initiation" which may once have been the guerdon of those accepted into the Greater Mysteries. Such, however, is not dependent upon ceremonial: the inner testing of the soul comes at any time, in any place, to any individual — in the midst of the daily meeting of one's private and public responsibilities. Moreover, Marcus must have sensed that one whose destiny had plunged him into the thick of battle where the lives of many hundreds of men had been sacrificed for the sake of empire, regardless of how 'righteous' the cause may have seemed, or how pure his inner motive, would have need of the cleansing waters of death before another birth would allow him the opportunity to earn the sacred trial.
It is indeed paradoxical that one who aspired only to serve the common good, and to hurt no man, should have had to spend so much time fighting, to say nothing of having to counter the ravages of plague, famine and the continual financial drain of foreign wars. In spite of all this, Marcus accomplished amazing reforms in the field of jurisprudence, enacting several important measures that did away with the severities and contradictions in the laws, particularly in respect to the "weak and the helpless — widows, slaves, minors." In fact, he is credited with establishing a home for orphaned girls; and, on one occasion, discovering that the poor were unable to meet the demands of the tax assessors, ordered that all tax claims against them be thrown in a pile in the Forum and burned.
Perhaps, after all, it is not such an anomaly, for Marcus Aurelius gives validity to Plato's dream of what the ideal ruler should be, when "philosophers are kings, or the kings or princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one" (Republic, Bk. V). Marcus Aurelius was indeed a ruler who preferred the garb of a philosopher to the robe of emperor; the role of peacemaker to that of commander-in-chief.
Yet karma, or the Fates if we like, had chosen the task that was to be his. Whereas Julius Caesar had enlarged the empire by conquest, and Augustus had urged its preservation rather than its further expansion, later emperors had vastly extended its boundaries. Marcus Aurelius was faced, therefore, with having to deal not only with the continuous onslaughts of Germanic tribes from the north, but also with the rebellion of Eastern provinces recently annexed. These alone would not have proved insuperable obstacles. But, as often happens, at the apex of material splendor the seeds of inner decay had germinated so that Marcus, despite the nobility of his private character and the worthiness of his public aims, found himself powerless to stay the forces of disruption that were to eventuate ultimately in the collapse of the Roman empire.
When we recall that these jottings "to himself" were made on and off during the last ten years of his life, a good part of which was spent on the battlefield, they have an even greater impact. Historians have wished that he might have included at least a few news communiques, but the most we have are bleak references to places, such as "among the Quadi, on the River Gran," or "at Carnunturn." He was then well past the prime of youth, and not at all well, and with soldiers dying all about him, it is little wonder that he wrote so often of the transiency of life, the vanity of fame, and the ever-present imminence of death.
While some have felt his philosophy to be tinged with pessimism, it is far from this. Born of the imperative to keep himself inwardly in command of his thoughts and emotions, he examines himself at every point, without mercy yet always with that dignity of soul that is the hallmark of those to whom self-discipline and service in a cause greater than themselves are habitual. The living conviction that a "sacred bond" unites all things, for all are rooted in divinity, shines through. Integrity, self-challenge, sensitivity to and understanding of others' frailties as well as of their needs, and a serene confidence in the majesty and purpose of the life-pattern — these characterize the book and the man.
(From Sunrise magazine, February 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press))