Roman Emperor Comments on Life and Leadership
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, August 19 / 19
Certainly, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a useful, brief volume for anyone wishing to explore an exemplary lifestyle. In many ways, it is an ancient “self help” book and this category, I am told, is the most popular in most modern bookstores. Although written almost 2000 years ago, it is still relevant to anyone thinking about what is most important in life, how to deal with fear of death, what constitutes an ideal citizen, and how to survive in a grouchy, gossipy workplace, and a tense and fractious world.
With two election campaigns now under way in Canada, and voting taking place in Manitoba next month and across the country in October, Marcus Aurelius inadvertently also addresses relevant issues for us here and in the contemporary world. He doesn’t endorse any particular party but he does lay out the responsibilities that leaders and citizens should take on.
His image of an ideal citizen is someone who, rather than complaining about problems, gets out into the community and takes action. His image of an ideal leader is someone who rejects ambition and self-indulgence in favour of working on behalf of the population toward justice and social responsibility. Of course, Marcus was a product of his time, and Romans had slaves. Their idea was to treat their slaves well and then to offer them freedom after a certain amount of time and quality of service.
Marcus counsels that people should conduct their lives with patience, fairness, honesty and humility. He strongly believed in the value of education. He expresses great frustration with his own royal court where lavish lifestyles, partying, back-biting and ignorance were always on display. As he warns but is at peace with, the rich person and the poor one ultimately end up in the same place.
And speaking of death, Marcus asserts that we should accept it, as well as the trials and tribulations of life, with equanimity, as part of a process that nature provides, that birth, giving birth, and all the stages and passages of life are natural and not to be feared or seen as negatives. That is probably the height of stoicism.
To be at peace with all that befalls us in life is certainly a “talent” as our current age, and possibly humankind over its history, has largely been an example of the opposite, always wanting more, being insensitive to other’s needs and the environment, and not seeing the ups and downs of life as a process, but rather as a frustrating and fearful challenge. There is even good in suffering injury or loss, Marcus says, as much is to be learned from that experience.
What is there to be gained in reading the thoughts of a ruler two millennia back in history? When you live your life, and in more immediate terms as you head to the ballot box, what is it that you hold dear? Can you step back and take the “long view” of the issues? Can you, in a non-partisan way, assess what is the best that our potential leaders can offer us? Or are we just another example of the grasping generation that ignored its responsibilities and frustrated Marcus Aurelius?
Zack Gross is a ‘retired” social activist and former Executive Director of Brandon’s The Marquis Project.
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