This “most religious of emperors”, and character in the recent movie Gladiator, was not only a great soldier and statesman but a fascinating philosopher as well. He studied the ideas of the Greek philosophers, particularly the stoics, and was initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, a cult highly respected in ancient Greece and Rome. Even with the immense duties he imposed on himself, he somehow found time for daily contemplation. (If the leader of the largest empire of the ancient world could find time for it why can’t we?) Here are a few of his profound insights into consciousness and behaviour:
“…Among reasonable beings arose commonwealths, friendships, families, collectivity, and even in their wars, conventions and truces. Among those of a more excellent nature arose a mutual correspondence and unity of purpose like the planets which, though far apart from one another, align themselves in sympathy.”
“ There is only one light of the sun, though it is intercepted by walls and mountains and thousands of other objects. There is only one common substance of the whole world, though it is restrained in an infinite number of forms or bodies. There is only one common soul, though it is divided into innumerable particular essences and natures. So there is only one mind though it seems to be divided…”
“The effect of true philosophy is unaffected simplicity and modesty”.
The philosopher/king had a deep sense of the transience and illusory nature of the world:
“…can any man, contemplating the many changes evident in life and the swiftness with which they occur, can he otherwise but condemn and despise in his heart all worldly things? The cause of the universe is a strong torrent carry-ing everything away”.
However, as the translator M. Casaubon remarks of Aurelius:
“If worldly things be but as a dream, the thought is not far off that there may be an awakening to what is real”.
This realization seems to shine through in this last passage:
“The natural properties and privileges of a reasonable soul are: that it sees itself, that it can order and compose itself, that it can make of itself whatever it wills itself to be, that it har-vests its own fruit. And when its life on earth ends it fulfills and completes whatever activi-ty death finds it doing, and it can depart with the comfort that it has lived but has no desire to take any of its worldly possessions with it. It can encompass the whole world and penetrate the veil of vanity and illusion, of unreal externals, and reach into the infinite-ness of eternity. It knows within itself that all will be transformed and return to its original state”.
by Graham Brown