The Ancient Teaching of a Roman Emperor Can Help Now

There are no two ways about it…the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and current political unrest has affected us all, regardless of religion, political party, or financial means.  

While it feels like these times are unique, that isn’t true.  In many ways, we are reliving a dark period of the Roman Empire.  

From AD166 to AD180, the Roman Empire was ravaged by a smallpox pandemic while under political attack from within and military threat from its enemies.  

The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus faced down these threats before himself dying from the pandemic.  

In the middle of the plague, Marcus wrote a book, The Meditations, which was his private record of the moral and psychological advice that he lived by to cope with his life’s uncertainty.  

It was approximately 40 years ago that I was assigned to read Marcus Aurelius’ writings. I wasn’t happy about the assignment and, at the time, found The Meditations tedious and uninspiring.  

However, I was wrong (the book is tedious but definitely inspiring).  

Below are three things I still think about, and which brings me emotional calm and solace.  

No matter what, always do the right thing…nothing else matters.

Marcus Aurelius knew that he could not control other people’s actions, only his own.  And through the exercise of free will, Marcus knew that he could always do the right thing, even if others around him did not.  

Do not fear the future…it will come no matter what, and we will meet it with the weapons of reason and free will

We cannot control the future, and we should not fear it. 

The future will come to us no matter what, and if we are calm and remember to do the right thing, that is the best we can do. 

Fear does not make the future better and will only make the present worse.  

Accept the fact that no one lives forever, and we are all mortal…it will help us make the most of our lives

Marcus Aurelius faced a much more severe pandemic than COVID-19 and died from it.  He believed that when confronted with our own mortality, it changes our perspective on life. 

He was one of the original philosophers that asked the eternal question of if today was your last day, what would you do with it.  

Marcus Aurelius knew that the pandemic was not under his control, but he knew that the way he behaved in response was his to decide.  

Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that fear does us more harm than the things we are afraid of.  He was able to be strong in the face of adversity by doing the right thing and not fearing the future, even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, external wars, and internal political strife.   

There is much we can learn from history, even ancient history, to help us understand and cope with current events.  

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Mark Sunshine

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