Thoughts On Marcus Aurelius Before The Election

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An election is a natural time to consider what makes a great leader.

In tracing the arc of my own beliefs about leadership, no voice has struck me as more resonant than that of Marcus Aurelius.

Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180, he left a record of his thoughts known to modernity as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. My late, and ex, father-in-law suggested I read it, along with Pascal’s Pensees, when I was going through some heavy duty questioning of why I was in college and what I was doing with my life.

These questions were youthful ones, born of a general lack of experience, but he treated both them and their callow inquirer with respect. These two volumes are not beach reading, by any means, but he believed I would respond to them.

It was the same feeling of being respected I had once when we were standing at twilight overlooking some darkening southern ocean waters. He lit his pipe and said “Isn’t that the perfect Homeric wine dark sea?” He knew I had read The Odyssey and would get the allusion. By such questions as these do young men get lifted up.

So I read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, thanks to him, and let the emperor speak to me.

Now, I am no one’s expert in his Stoic philosophy, though I read recently that, in it, there is no distinction between an “is” and an “ought.” No second-guessing needed, because everything has happened the way it was supposed to.

The Stoicism and his evident deep desire for self improvement are for me almost incidental.

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One message, above all, from this great Greek leader — Acknowledge and be grateful for your teachers. Aurelius is a model of gratitude and leadership for me because he begins his book with several pages acknowledging others in his life for what they gave him.

Gratitude first, everything else to follow: that’s the way to live and lead, by my lights.

He was the emperor, yet he exhaustively listed what he learned, and from whom, in the most minute detail. Before any of his teachings on what the Greeks called ataraxia, or freedom from distress and worry, came humble acknowledgement.

He wrote on page one —

“From my grandfather Verus, I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things.

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline,

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner

From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding.

From Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice

To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.”

These are but a sample. I read them and think “Here’s a man I would follow.” Imagine a leader not being busy with trifling things and knowing that their character required improvement and discipline. To have seen the damage envy, duplicity and hypocrisy can do. To love truth.

It is said that the emperor had a servant always walking behind him, whose only job was to whisper “You are but a man,” when needed.

Whomever we favor, we might well profitably meditate on this before Tuesday.

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