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Friday, 5th November 2010

Let not things future trouble thee

A recent press reported the success story of Warren Buffett, probably the world's best-known investor, attributing it to two principles: seek out the truth; and have independent thinking.

It is of interest to note that a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-180), wrote about them two thousand years ago. His 'Meditations' is still widely read to this day and has been a favourite of many, including Frederick the Great (1712-1786), Goethe (1749-1832), former U.S. President Clinton and Premier Wen Jiaobao.

Figure 1     Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Figure 1      Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Ruling from 161 to 180, Marcus was the last of the 'Five Good Emperors'. He was by nature gentle, carefree, family-loving and desirous of quiet joy. Despite being Emperor Hadrian's (76-138) protégé by virtue of his intelligence and frankness, he preferred philosophy to public duty. As a youngster, he studied while wearing a rough Greek cloak, and slept on the ground until his mother convinced him to sleep on a bed.

To a thoughtful mind the Roman religion at the time would give little satisfaction. Its teaching had little to do with morality. It was in fact a bargain: men paid their dues, and the gods granted their favour, irrespective of right or wrong.

By irony of fate Marcus was set at the head of the Roman Empire when great dangers threatened from east and west. His wars were largely successful, so was the subsequent settlement, giving the Empire two centuries of respite.

Marcus was considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. The philosophy seeks to live in conformity with nature, which can mean 'Nature' or a person's own virtues. To achieve this, there is a threefold division into: Physics (see note), which deals with the universe and its laws, the problems of divine government and teleology; Logic, which trains the mind to discern true from false; and Ethics, which applies the knowledge thus gained and tested to practical life.

'Meditations' was written during Marcus' last ten years during most of which he was on campaign. It was addressed to himself, and he did not contemplate its publication for posterity. It records his inmost thoughts, with moral reflections as may help him to bear the burden of duty and the countless annoyances of a busy life. Read it, and the wisdom and rationality two millennia ago stays fresh and relevant. Some is shared below (the titles are mine).

On our part in the universe

"It is high time for thee to understand the true nature both of the world, whereof thou art a part; and of that Lord and Governor of the world, from whom, as a channel from the spring, thou thyself didst flow; and that there is but a certain limit of time appointed unto thee, which if thou shalt not make use of to calm and allay the many distempers of thy soul, it will pass away and thou with it, and never after return."

On death

"... as what it is to die, and how if a man shall consider this by itself alone, to die, and separate from it in his mind all those things which with it usually represent themselves unto us, he can conceive of it no otherwise, than as of a work of nature, and he that fears any work of nature, is a very child. Now death, it is not only a work of nature, but also conducing to nature."

On past, present and future

"... yet that time which is now present and in being, is equal unto all men. And that being it which we part with whensoever we die, it doth manifestly appear, that it can be but a moment of time, that we then part with. For as for that which is either past or to come, a man cannot be said properly to part with it. For how should a man part with that which he hath not?"

"Let not things future trouble thee. For if necessity so require that they come to pass, thou shalt (whensoever that is) be provided for them with the same reason, by which whatsoever is now present, is made both tolerable and acceptable unto thee."

On what's good and what's evil

"As for life therefore, and death, honour and dishonour, labour and pleasure, riches and poverty, all these things happen unto men indeed, both good and bad, equally; but as things which of themselves are neither good nor bad; because of themselves, neither shameful nor praiseworthy."

On material and soul

"As for the things themselves, they touch not the soul, neither can they have any access unto it: neither can they of themselves any ways either affect it, or move it. For she (the soul) herself alone can affect and move herself, and according as the dogmata and opinions are, which she doth vouchsafe herself, so are those things which, as accessories, have any co-existence with her."

On fame

"I have often wondered how it should come to pass, that every man loving himself best, should more regard other men's opinions concerning himself, than his own."

"Who can choose but wonder at them? They will not speak well of them that are at the same time with them, and live with them; yet they themselves are very ambitious, that they that shall follow, whom they have never seen, nor shall ever see, should speak well of them. As if a man should grieve that he hath not been commended by them, that lived before him."

On love of life

"Love and affect that only, whatsoever it be that happeneth, and is by the fates appointed unto thee. For what can be more reasonable?

Then hath a man attained to the estate of perfection in his life and conversation, when he so spends every day, as if it were his last day: never hot and vehement in his affections, nor yet so cold and stupid as one that had no sense; and free from all manner of dissimulation."

B.Y. Lee

Note - Physics at the time was quite different from what we have today. It considered the universe as perfect, orderly and purposeful, and made up of the elements. Man was considered part of the universe, or a small universe, with his nature and the universe as one, and should seek utmost perfection. For this he had to be clear in his mind and let reason govern it.

a)   Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Meric Casubon, published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1906.
b)   Wikipedia

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>