A few years ago when asked the cheesy question, “which historical figure would you like to most meet?”, I immediately realized that it was a toss up between the Russian pacifist writer Leo Tolstoy and the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Their messages were both seductive to my mind, which sought the ideal. While I had first glimpsed the connection between myself and a larger universal force in the pages of War and Peace, it was Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, who most inspired me on how to live.
Marcus Aurelius, the second century Stoic philosopher-emperor, exhibited consistency, humility and purposefully lived his ideals. He did so, unswervingly, competently, without ever complaining. Marcus Aurelius, while having a soft heart seemed to possess a spine of steel. He was the very definition of integrity in my mind.
I visit Marcus every few years when I happen to pass by the Campidoglio in Rome, nearly swooning over his commanding equestrian figure, with outstretched arms, trim beard, calm and confident expression, reaching out to us over the gap of centuries, to remind us what it means to be immortally human. And to also remind us that empires may vanish but one individual’s character can forever inspire.
Sitting on the steps of the Capitoline Museum and gazing upon the bronze horseman, I review his life lessons in my mind. How well he knew and how little we have changed over two thousand years. And it was to Marcus, among others, that I turned when in need of guidance. What would he have advised me had he been seated in my presence?
Marcus was very prepared to address the larger challenges that life could present. During most of his years in power, Rome was shaken by war, unrest, plague and even earthquakes. As a military strategist, emperor and philosopher, it was important for him to stay closely aligned with the truth, and to see things as they really were. In his personal life, he experienced the excruciating loss of most of his children. He viewed life not as a dance , but more akin to a wrestling match. I would later come to see it more as a classroom, one with occasional tests that required a higher perspective to navigate. And during those times, Marcus was one of my closest advisors.