A Man Too Great For Fame
Marcus Aurelius was once the emperor of Rome, but his private Meditations reveal a man too great for fame.
Despite inheriting the throne of civilization at age forty, he sought to climb even higher through rigorous examination of the world and himself.
Aurelius kept a private journal; he likely never intended for his to be read by anyone, even after his death. Thankfully, some unknown hero(es) of history saved his work and 2,000 years later, we’re able to experience Aurelius’ mind at work.
Respecting this great emperor’s disdain for fame, I recommend it not because he was an emperor, but because he was great.Meditations is a banquet of humble self-criticism and earnest self-encouragement.
Aurelius begins Book I by listing the people he learned from most and their respective lessons. Here are five:
- Valuing Education
From my great-grandfather: not to have attended schools for the public; to have had good teachers at home, and to realize that this is the sort of thing on which one should spend lavishly.
2. Delivering Criticism Politely or Refraining From Being a ‘Grammar Nazi’
From Alexander the grammarian: not to leap on mistakes or captiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary, syntax, or pronunciation, but neatly to introduce the correct form of that particular expression by way of answer…
3. Valuing Rationality
From Diognetus: To avoid empty enthusiasms; to disbelieve all that is talked by miracle-mongers and quacks about incantations, exorcism of demons, and the like…; to tolerate plain speaking; to have an affinity for philosophy…; to write essays from a young age.
4. Valuing Making Mistakes
From Rusticus: to grasp the idea of wanting correction and treatment for my character…; to be readily recalled to conciliation with those who have taken or given offense…
From Catalus: Not to spurn a friend’s criticism…
5. Controlling One’s Emotions
From Maximus: Self-mastery; immune to any passing whim; good cheer in all circumstances, including illness…; both gentle and dignified; an uncomplaining energy for what needs to be done…
Self-awareness and self-improvement were of great importance for Aurelius, as he returns again and again throughout his 12 Books to studying his flaws and encouraging change.
He observes the importance of learning ever more and challenging one’s beliefs:
Whenever you meet someone, ask yourself first this immediate question: ‘What beliefs does this person hold about the good and bad in life?’ because if he believes this or that about pleasure and pain…, about fame and obscurity, death and life, then I shall not find it surprising or strange if he acts in this or that way…
The same goes for when you meet yourself; when you lay down to sleep at night; when you meet yourself at the mirror the next morning; when you have a conflict with a coworker that afternoon; when you return home and face a challenge with a loved-one.
Have the courage to look at yourself.