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On Human Greatness

David Villarreal
Feb 22 · 6 min read

A meditation on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

It was not long ago when I bought Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. My interest in buying the book had grown ever since I started reading Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic on a daily basis every morning before starting my day.

It surprised me how the most powerful man in the world, at the end of his day — probably after a long battle or a strategy meeting with his top generals — would go back to his imperial tent and, in his solitude, start writing down his thoughts as they came.

Marcus Aurelius spent most of his reign on the battlefront lines, leading Roman armies against Germanic tribes and the Parthians for almost 20 years. He also had to deal with a plague that would kill up to 2,000 a day in Rome, devastating the Roman population and army with an estimated death toll of 5 million. All of this while also managing internal politics, corruption, bureaucracy, an immature brother/co-emperor, and his troubled son.

And yet he maintained Rome a world power, keeping its territorial expansion and securing economic stability and peace throughout the Empire. He was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors and is often considered one of Rome’s finest rulers.

“The Philosopher King”, he would be called by historians and philosophers — fulfilling a prophecy made by Plato half a millennia before: “Philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize” — The Republic, 6.488d

It is very easy to alienate ourselves from such extraordinary historical figures, shrugging off any dreams to be like them because we don’t feel extraordinary enough and prefer to keep on living ordinarily, comfortably. “Nah, I’m not meant for such greatness” we might say to ourselves.

I would say that to myself pretty often too.

Until I read Meditations.

To my surprise, Marcus Aurelius, the “Philosopher King”, Rome’s finest Emperor, one of the most powerful men of ancient western civilization, turned out to be as human as I am.

In the quietness of his tent, in his solitude, absent of his armor and purple gowns, he wrote to himself — in the most authentic, intimate and vulnerable way. Exposing thoughts, emotions, and doubts that everyone, as ordinary human beings, face day-to-day.

He would write about being grateful for his younger half-brother, her mother’s virtues, arrogant people, daily struggles, death, and self-doubt.

He would also write words for-self inspiration, seemingly after tough days when he was not at his best: “Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human — however imperfectly — and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

…he would question himself: “What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now.”

See, Marcus Aurelius greatness did not come from his external achievements, but from the greatness within that fueled his decisions and actions. Accolades, triumphs, power, respect were mere products of his own nature as a great human being — not the other way around.

Human Greatness is not something that arrives from outside. It is not a product of external events or accomplishments. It does not come from your job title, your income, school degree, fame, nor your power. None of which is fulfilling by its own end, all of it is temporary, and it can be taken away at any moment.

Put your self-worth in a finite condition and you are doomed to be unhappy.

Greatness lies within.

Greatness lies in our sense of morality, in the courage to do what is right. In stepping up for those who are weak. In dealing with fear — not escaping from it. In fighting cancer with grace. In saying “I love you” first. In battling your consistent self-doubt. In getting up of bed every morning when depressed. In being kind and patient with those who are not.

These traits, of course, are nurtured by an inner deep personal work. So how is this Inner Greatness nurtured?

David Brooks, a NYTimes Columnist and author of “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life”, posted an article describing how living a good life resembles climbing two mountains — the first one being the achievement of a professional standard, earning praise and reputation; the second one driven by an inner desire based on love, morality, and spirituality. He describes this process as the silencing of our own ego:

“The self-centered voice of the ego has to be quieted before a person is capable of freely giving and receiving love. Then there is contact with the heart and soul — through prayer, meditation, writing, whatever it is that puts you in contact with your deepest desires

[…] In the wilderness the desire for esteem is stripped away and bigger desires are made visible: the desires of the heart (to live in loving connection with others) and the desires of the soul (the yearning to serve some transcendent ideal and to be sanctified by that service).” — David Brooks, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy

People stuck in the first mountain, no matter how successful, eventually succumb to a hollow life lacking purpose and transcendence. People who manage to reach the second mountain go further, living a life that, despite its flaws and chaos, find peace, courage, and a deep sense of transcendence. Even to a point of accepting death as their final and irreversible conclusion, greeting it gracefully— a common thought by Marcus Aurelius.

The most extraordinary thing that I find meditating on Inner Greatness is that every human being is capable of reaching it. It is not dependent on income, profession, nor physical traits. I have personally met the most ordinary people who are far greater human beings than current billionaires, CEOs, and presidents.

So just as greatness lies within you, waiting to be nurtured, you can find it out there in your neighborhood and in your daily commute. Great human beings are like invisible heroes: fighting extraordinarily their own life struggles while giving you that ride to the airport, being your friendly colleague, sitting right next to you at the subway, cleaning your office floor, or cooking your dinner at your to-go weekend restaurant.

In some way, this reflection on Inner Greatness and great human beings can provide us with comfort in two ways:

  1. You are the master of yourself — just as greatness comes from within, so does inner peace, happiness, and self-realization.
  2. There are more good people out there than we think making the world a better place, they’re just invisible to us.

There’s a scene in The Hobbit movie that I love. When Galadriel asks Gandalf why he’s taking Bilbo with him on such dangerous adventure, his response can’t be more accurate:

…I don’t know. Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid… and he gives me courage. — Gandalf the Gray, the Hobbit movie

May we seek and acknowledge great human beings around us, on it together for a better world.

And may we ourselves strive for Greatness — both in heart and mind. So that when our time comes, we’ll rest assured knowing that within our ordinary lives, we dared to be Great.

David Villarreal

Written by

Mexican, catholic and business consultant. Big fan of Les Miserables, hiking and chocolate pretzels. Living in nyc.

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