By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Duncan Steen
Marcus Aurelius has been called the last of the five good emperors of Rome. Gibbons went so far as to suggest that this is one of the best times in history for people to live. (Maybe, but Gibbons might be a little biased based on being male and white.)
Aurelius embodies the concept of the Philosopher King. Philosopher Kings are first described by Plato as the only ideal totalitarian leaders capable of ruling society. They would rule capably because of their wisdom and knowledge of the Good. “Meditations” suggests that Marcus Aurelius was the real deal.
In the modern world, Aurelius provides a bible for the leisure-class. The leisure-class is the only category of humanity that would have the time or wealth to pursue education long enough to gain the knowledge requisite for a role as Philosopher King. Being born rich and willing to pursue education and an active public service life, as Marcus Aurelius did, makes the field of Philosopher Kings in the modern world infinitesimally small.
Aurelius recognizes the ephemeral nature of life’s pleasures and chooses to write about and use Plato’s ideal forms to guide his rule. The ideal forms are Plato’s essences of life, measures of the Good that in most people’s sight and knowledge are only shadows in a cave. Aurelius benefited from aristocratic heritage, wealth, and leisure but in that lap of luxury he forthrightly rejected opulent pleasures. His wealth and leisure offered a private education that allowed him to study and contemplate the source and truth of Plato’s cave shadows; his aristocratic heritage provided opportunity to rule.
In the post industrial world the likelihood of a 21st century Philosopher King is inconceivable but “Meditations” does offer a wonderful guide to today’s leisure class. With time, education, and inclination, a human being can adopt Aurelius’ rules for living a life of joy and contentment. However, it is a life that runs contrary human nature’s proclivities, the pursuit of money, power, and prestige, but the leisure-class may have enough of each to stop climbing life’s ladders to despair.
Aurelius lives in the post Christian era (121-180 AD) and writes with some confusion about belief in gods or God but seems to believe in pre-ordination and humankind’s necessary acceptance of a lot in life. Aurelius forsakes despair and honors acceptance of doing the best one can do in a short human life. Aurelius does not seek money, power, or prestige but accepts the responsibility of being an emperor and lets actions define his life. He believes every person has a social responsibility and that to remove oneself from social interaction is a betrayal of living a good life.
There are many “pearls of wisdom” in Marcus Aurelius’ book, “Meditations”. If a listener is at a point in his or her life that allows meditation, this is a good place to start.