“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

We live in the best time in all history. Note that it is not the best possible time in all of history — only that it’s the best time ever but better times are yet to be. You could have lived, say, 200 years ago; then you would not have had access to all the wonderful ideas and things that humans have discovered, invented, learned about after that time.

Now is better than any previous moment in history because humanity’s understanding of the world increases monotonically. Humanity has been accumulating wisdom for thousands of years, and what’s even more marvelous is that we have instant access to all that wisdom, ancient and modern, provided we wish to learn. Buddhas have walked this earth before us, and no doubt there will be future buddhas even more enlightened than those that went before.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in India around 2500 years ago. Around the age of 35 years, he attained enlightenment and became the Sakhyamuni Buddha — the buddha who was the sage of the Sakhya clan — the historical Buddha. It’s tempting to say that the Buddha belongs to India but that is wrong. The Buddha belongs to the world. This follows from an ancient Indian conception of humanity as one family. They called it vasudaiva kutumbakam (vasudha-eva-kutumbakam — the world – is thus — family.)

I take that very seriously. Anything that any human anywhere has done anytime belongs to the entirety of humanity. Buddha, Confucius, Aryabhata, Newton, Chandrashekar, Einstein, Bose, Ramanujan, Cantor, Goethe, Kalidasa — and thousands others — they are our common heritage. The Mahabharat is as much ours as are the Iliad and I Ching.

The Roman writer Terentius (c. 185 – 159 BCE), wrote, Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. “I am human: Nothing human is alien to me.” That’s ageless wisdom. Which brings to me to Marcus Aurelius. One of the finest examples of what humans are capable of at their best.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 CE – 180 CE) reigned as the Emperor of the Roman Empire for 19 years — from 161 CE to 180 CE. He was celebrated for his military victories but long after all that is forgotten, his Meditations would be remembered. He was truly Plato’s “philosopher king.”

He is considered one of the great Stoic philosophers. One of Marcus Aurelius’s contemporaries was the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (50 CE — 135 CE.)  He was born a slave and lived in Rome. How’s that for contrast — one man an emperor and another a slave. But both incredibly wise.

We are limited beings. We don’t have the time to learn all that life has to teach us all by ourselves. We have to learn from others. So much to learn and so little time. Fortunately, we can reduce the burden by learning from the best. As it happens, the core principles are not that many.

What the Buddha taught, for example, has been taught by others after him. The content in its essence is remarkably similar although the form may have varied a bit. Reading the Meditations, I can hear echoes of what the Buddha said.

If you wish to familiarize yourself with the Meditations, I recommend a summary of the book in a YouTube video by Vox Stoica. Here’a brief sample of the audio.

Did you catch that word “eudaimonia” in the above audio extract? It means “human flourishing and prosperity” — what essentially concerns me as an economist.

So here’s the YouTube video:

Vox Stoica has reduced a 5 hour 30 minutes reading of the Meditations to a 30 minute summary. Listen.

(I believe that it is important to revisit good content — whether text, audio or video. It’s better to read an important book several times than to read many unimportant books once. Free hint: extract audio from videos and load it up on your smartphone to listen while doing the dishes or commuting. I use “4K Video Downloader.” Really useful and totally free.)

Photo credit: The image at the top of this post is from The Historian’s Hut.



Author: Atanu Dey


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