We are tied to our positions in life as the planets are tied to their orbits. It is not up to us to decide when and where we rotate. We rotate as determined by the breath in our body and the pneuma in our souls. In Book X of Meditations, Marcus reflects that “Whatever happens to you was preordained for you from time everlasting, and from eternity the web of causation was weaving together your own existence and this that happens to you.” All of existence leads to the seconds of my experience and in turn, these seconds will lead to the rest of what is to come. I am both insignificant in the face of the cosmos and a critical, necessary piece of all that is.
Marcus inhabits my living room table, lying on his back, observing the clutter with unpainted eyes. His pages go unturned most days, but his presence next to the half-spent candles is guaranteed as a monument to the way of life I wish to embody. In desperate moments, between fated virtual meetings and phone calls, Marcus rescues me from the existential malaise wrought by our peculiar spot in human history. In each tiny struggle that accumulates the whole of my life, Marcus guides me to the safe harbor of Stoicism.
Stoicism argues that we are all made of the same divine substance. We are creative fire manifest, the reason of the universe playing out for the good of everything. Stars and humans are forged from the same heat, born to play a role in the cosmological theater of existence. To live well is to align yourself with the nature of the art and play your role as best you can.
It’s a bit overwhelming. I can’t comprehend the space between Marcus and I, let alone the space between me and the stars. It is terrifying and beautiful, vast and intimate. I am paralyzed with awe, overflowing with existential wonder, and at a loss as to what to do with it. Marcus feels the weight as I do, albeit more eloquently. In Book II, he says about human life that “…all that belongs to the body is a stream in flow, all that belongs to the soul, mere dream and delusion, and our life is a war, a brief stay in a foreign land, and our fame thereafter, oblivion.” His solution to the brutal campaign of life is direct and simple: philosophy. Philosophy is humanity’s tool for understanding nature and the roles within it. To align with nature is to be in accord with all that is. And Stoicism teaches us that nothing can be bad that accords with nature.
Rise to do the work of a human being. The emperor’s words feel cold against my ruling center, like a backhanded comment from a disappointed guardian who knows I can do better. Marcus grapples with being one of the most powerful men on the planet. I grapple with sitting too much. I know I disappoint the emperor, but in quiet instances of daily struggle he is a source of immense comfort despite the temporal rift between us.
Why do I rise? To dig, if fate allows.
In Book V, Marcus is continuing his role as Roman Emperor. On one particular morning, he is having a hard time getting out of bed. He struggles with himself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for?” The bees and ants do not sleep in, they hurry off to play their role. But he, a being who shares in divine psychê as they do, resists playing his inevitable part. He rises with a sigh, dawns his heavy purple costume, and steps into the crisp air somewhere along the banks of the Danube to meet the “meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable” faces of his audience.
But of all the figures in philosophy, Marcus Aurelius stands out. His day job was Emperor of Rome, but what we have of his personal writings reveals him to be incredibly philosophical. For Marcus, Stoicism was how he stood upright.
I am hard-pressed to recall the nuances of externalism and internalism on a late night with an old friend. The details of safety and sensitivity escape me on tired, frosty mornings. In the quiet moments that make the lion’s share of my life, much of philosophy’s richness plays no role.
What does flutter across my mind in mundane minutes is the personal side of past philosophers. When I prepare myself for a social gathering, I recall stories of how pleasant Spinoza was. When overwhelmed with demands and obligations, Hume sneaks in and reminds me to eat a meal and play cards for a few hours. I am forever guilt-tripped into exercising by visions of Plato destroying his competition in the pankration. Frustrated moods are accompanied by the personification of Mr. Scrooge, the lovable Prussian Arthur Schopenhauer, yelling at me from a snowy balcony.
His thoughts reveal him wrestling with all-too-human matters. Some passages read like he had a bad day on the battlefield, the pressures of his position and the burdens of others chipping away at his being. Yet, in other passages, he’s a man overwhelmed by the beauty of the universe. He wants to be left alone with his books, delving into the intricate wonders of our world. These passages make Marcus more than a distant ancestor grimacing from the beyond. He, like me, is a man trying to get through life. I am no emperor, but like an emperor, I sometimes struggle to get out of bed. On murky mornings when I rise to survey my own metaphorical Danube, I think, “Me too, Marcus. Me, too.”
I rise, don my work pants, and stand triumphant among the exalted legends of the past. In my mind’s eye, Hume nods slyly from his backgammon table, Spinoza smiles widely, and Schopenhauer lets a wink slip from the balcony. I glance past the weight of the world spilling out of my laptop and see Marcus next to my house plants, looking back at me from his timeless throne of meditations. In his voice (which sounds remarkably like mine) he tells me, as he tells himself, “Dig within; for within you lies the fountain of good, and it can always be gushing forth if only you always dig.”

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