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Marcus Aurelius and the Brambles

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE, was good at multi-tasking. He is thought to have written his ‘Meditations’ in his spare time between conducting a military campaign in central Europe (c. 171-175) and holding on to his seat as emperor.

Christians have no difficulty in recognising that the words of someone nearly 2,000 years ago can still have meaning for us today and Marcus Aurelius would be my other nominee for this title. Books on how to keep calm and carry on when surrounded by conflict still become instant bestsellers. Do you know ‘The little book of Calm‘? Marcus Aurelius said it all first, and in the opinion of some, better.

When I went to university at the age of 17, my mother having just died, my father was about to be posted to India. He presented me with a leather-bound copy of the New Testament and three small books which he had acquired when he went up to Balliol thirty years earlier: the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the thoughts of Pascal and the maxims of the Duc de la Rouchefoucauld. These books, which are still with me four continents and forty years later, are one of the reasons why I hope Kindle will not take over the world. I treasure the books not just as paper and print but because of my father’s annotations – he had sidelined many of the ‘thoughts’ which he found particularly fine with a 1-4 grading system. It is always fun seeing where I agree – and disagree – with him.

Gurdur (Tim Skellett) and I were having a conversation, as you do, about life’s minor irritations and debating what one should do about them. I reminded him of my favourite Marcus Aurelius quote:

Is a cucumber bitter? Cast it away. Are there brambles in the path? Turn aside. No more is needed. Do not go on to ask: ‘why was the universe burdened by creations such as these?’ (viii.50)

One of the reasons I know this by heart is because I find it very difficult advice to take, while seeing that my life would be simpler and less fraught if I could. My husband is a constant reminder of this advice, as every time I begin a sentence with ‘Why do they…’ or  ‘Why don’t they…?’ he stops me and reminds me that these expressions of irritation are pointless: people either do or don’t have a reason for their behaviour but are unlikely to change it just because it annoys me. He’s right:

‘Turn aside. No more is needed. Do not go on to ask….’

My penultimate post recommended Maggi Dawn’s ‘Accidental Pilgrim’ as a book to keep by your bedside forever. I now nominate Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ to be added to this list (don’t worry, both are quite slim volumes).

The illustration is a bust of Marcus Aurelius from the Glyptothek, Munich via Wikimedia

6 comments on this post:

Gurdur said...

Neat post!

21 July 2011 17:26
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Gurdur!

21 July 2011 17:38
UKViewer said...

Your comment about your husband closing down a question reminds me so much of myself 🙁 I really must slap myself around the head.

As for Marcus Aurelius, he sounds like someone who might have been the ABC. Avoidance seemed to work for him, wonder why it's not for the current ABC?

Must look out for the film of the book! Wonder if someone will have the imagination to make one?

21 July 2011 17:46
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, UKViewer – yes, I am afraid you may be right. Collectively, the ABC may regard me and my fellow hecklers as bitter cucumbers who are best avoided, without bothering himself why on earth God created us. (I realise this is not quite the same as your suggestion…!)

In the interests of marital harmony, I had better add that after 30 years I don't mind my poor husband's interjections – he usually knows what I was about to say and is doing his best – with limited success – to train me out of a bad habit.

21 July 2011 17:54
Perpetua said...

Lovely post, Laura. Marcus Aurelius said a lot of things first:-) As I get older I find myself taking his advice about the cucumber and the brambles more and more. I think my confrontational days are nearly over….

21 July 2011 20:03
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Perpetua. It's the serenity prayer problem, isn't it?

"the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference."

I am quite good at the courage, cheerfully tilting at windmills whenever I can see the need for it. Not so good at the serenity, but working on it. The really tricky bit for me seems to be the wisdom…

22 July 2011 08:02

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