24 July 2007

Defeating the Inner Enemy, Roman Emperor style

So when I haven't been working on redoing my office space at work the last few days and fighting with my digital camera to release its photographic bounty to my Slide and Snapfish catalogs, I've been reading. In particular, an ancient text that's been extensively translated and fairly well cobbled together in a manageable paperback form. Forget Oprah, forget Dr. Phil, forget the countless shelves of 'self-improvement' books at Borders® or Barnes & Noble®. I think I've rediscovered one of the (if not 'the') earliest self-help books in history: "Meditations". Amazingly, it's still extremely applicable to today's life. And, equally amazingly, it was written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (yes, the one portrayed by the late Sir Richard Harris in the Ridley Scott Oscar®-winning film ...he did actually exist).

The book itself is a series of notes that Aurelius made for himself, about his people, about his Stoic philosophy, about being above the lure of gluttony and distraction, about love, about life, and about death. Who knows if the version I'm reading is the way he intended the notes to be meshed together...and actually it's believed the notes were more of a 'private journal' for his eyes only so their 'passing on' to generations later probably was never intended. Still, it's a fascinating read and well worth some examination if you're a hopeless history and philosophy buff such as myself.

I recently purchased my latest copy of this book (newly translated and introduced by Gregory Hays) about two months ago, as I bought a second as a gift for a friend who was graduating from college. It had been ages since I was 'forced' to read it in high school, although I was always struck by the subject matter and the ease of understanding (for some reason, I'd always thought that Roman politicians and emperors spoke as formally as The Royal Shakespeare Company always portrayed them on television). It's really like deja vu all over again for me...and I'm rereading it every chance I can steal a free minute or two. In a weird way, it's nice to see that as much as mankind has progressed (or regressed, depending on your outlook for the day), the same issues we essentially struggle with now were the same with the Romans in their prime.

Today's excerpt (from Book 4), which caught my attention and reflection:
Nothing that goes on in anyone else's mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you.

Then where is harm to be found?

In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it's attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone --- bad and good alike --- is neither good nor bad. That what happens in every life --- lived naturally or not --- is neither natural nor unnatural.

Perhaps now we 'me me me' generation philosophers can figure out how to take that message to the masses for a better appreciation and understanding. Bumper sticker anyone?

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