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See that you not be Caesarified, steeped in that dye, as too often happens. Meditations, Book VI

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’s therapeutic self-talk, the philosopher-emperor uses philosophy to soothe his fears and anxieties. And Marcus feared nothing more than the possibility of his own nature going wrong. He was very tolerant of the weaknesses of others, yet he didn’t extend the same leniency to himself; Marcus was easy on others and hard on himself.

In his own eyes, the highest foible was arrogance, and becoming drunk with worldly power. In fact, Marcus believed that it is our behavior when we have attained power and success, rather than when we are facing difficulties, that best defines who we are: “What sort of people are they when given worldly power?”, he asks himself. Julius Caesar and his cult of self were certainly a cautionary tale for Marcus Aurelius.

“Reign-in arrogance,” he rebuked himself, while reminding himself of his supposed many faults. Worrying that he may seduce himself with “self-conceit,” Marcus had devised a method for tackling his own sense of self-importance: He would remind himself that his purple Imperial robe was just sheep hair and the dyed blood of shell-fish. That is all.

“Don’t be too impressed with yourself,” he implied. And he took delight in recounting the positive attributes of others, almost as an antidote to self-conceit. Marcus had no need to belittle others in order to elevate himself. He judged himself not against others, but against the standards of “inner holiness” he had adopted: “Keep yourself simple, good, sincere, unaffected…”, he repeated.

Reminds me of a story my father had told me as a little girl: My great-grandfather was once asked who he considered to be the most honorable man he knew? Great-grandfather, who was highly respected and elected head of the chamber of commerce, had responded: “The bathhouse attendant who will labor on my back, but not show me the fruits of his labor and washes away the dead skin- he is the most honorable man I know.” The lesson was well- learned: All are deserving of respect, especially those with true humility.

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