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Aug 21, 2012


John Lang

Since you are considering the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius today, perhaps the thoughts of King Solomon on the subject are relevant and worthy to be considered:

[Remember your Creator earnestly now] before the silver cord [of life] is snapped apart, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern [and the whole circulatory system of the blood ceases to function];

Then shall the dust [out of which God made man’s body] return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God Who gave it.

Vapor of vapors and futility of futilities, says the Preacher. All is futility (emptiness, falsity, vainglory, and transitoriness)!

And furthermore, because the Preacher was wise, he [Solomon] still taught the people knowledge; and he pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.

The Preacher sought acceptable words, even to write down rightly words of truth or correct sentiment.

The words of the wise are like prodding goads, and firmly fixed [in the mind] like nails are the collected sayings which are given [as proceeding] from one Shepherd.

But about going further [than the words given by one Shepherd], my son, be warned. Of making many books there is no end [so do not believe everything you read], and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

All has been heard; the end of the matter is: Fear God [revere and worship Him, knowing that He is] and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man [the full, original purpose of his creation, the object of God’s providence, the root of character, the foundation of all happiness, the adjustment to all inharmonious circumstances and conditions under the sun] and the whole [duty] for every man.

For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good or evil.


Thanks, John--I appreciate it.

On another note, I was also just pointed to the "unpublished jottings" that close Christopher Hitchens' posthumous book Mortality, in which he writes "Larkin good on fear in 'Aubade,' with implied reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either."

This led me to look up Philip Larkin's beautiful, haunting poem, which I don't read as a critique of stoicism but as a version of same--more tender and accepting, perhaps, but still an effort to address the dread that our mortality evokes.


Beautifully stated, Ed. The present is the easy and hard of it. Your revelation that Aurelius wrote for himself makes him sound like one of us bloggers -- well, sort of. By any account his voice certainly reaches across time, and in this case seems ironically to transcend his own present. There's an elegiac tone in his writing (and in this post, too), that reminds of what the poet, Billy Collins has said somewhere I can no longer remember: "all poetry is about death."


Thanks, Dan--the comparison with blogging is an interesting one, because I think the best bloggers write in a personal voice on topics that are meaningful to them, and yet do so in a way that's accessible to readers. I suppose it's about helping readers see themselves in the writer's own story--you're great at that, by the way--and it's striking that we can see ourselves in the 2,000-year-old personal stories of a Roman emperor.

And "elegiac" is just the right word for his tone. I'm drawn to that quality in him, which seems to acknowledge our mortality and the inward-looking sadness it inevitably evokes in us, while encouraging us to lift our gaze and appreciate life while we can.

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