Delusions of Grandeur

The following text is a paraphrase and amalgam of observations by the 2nd century CE philosopher Marcus Aurelius. I have stitched the following passages together as a sort of compendium on one of his favourite themes: the changelessness of the human experience throughout history. This is a loose, dynamic rendition, informed by different translations of Marcus Aurelius’ writings (Casaubon, Hammond, and Long). Intended to be read as though it is the voice of Marcus Aurelius speaking in his own time. Readers should consult referenced passages for a more direct translation of the following text.

Think about what the world was like 100 years ago, back when Vespasian was the Emperor of Rome. People busily went about doing all the same things they do today: getting married, raising children, getting sick, and dying. You would find some people feasting luxuriously, and others plotting schemes. There were people obsessed with peddling their merchandise, and others slaving away at the drudgeries of labour. You’d find wooers, hoarders, flatters, and arrogant snobs. You’d find opportunists, egomaniacs, and ambitious, would-be politicians.

In short, you would find all the same people you find today.

And fifty years ago too, during the reign of Trajan, it was exactly the same. All those people and all those great aspirations — they have all vanished now. Their age is over and ended. Time has buried even the greatest heights of their accomplishments. No matter what period of history you examine, you see the same thing: everyone who sought for wealth, comfort, fame, and power are dead and gone, as are the remnants of all their strivings. (4.32)

Here is what I find fascinating: everything that happens in life is habitual and repetitive. Just as flowers bloom in the spring and fruit ripens in the summer, one generation of human beings after another rise and fall with the same predictable pattern. Each chapter of the human story has the same principal characters and timeworn plot twists: there is always disease, there is always treachery, there is always defamation, and there is always, finally, death. But most of all, there is always a sideshow capable of preoccupying, amusing, and vexing the fools. By and large, the mass of humanity is too distracted with itself to recognize its own cyclical redundancy… and its fate. (4.44)

But, we don’t have to live this way. Every time we see anything occur — no matter how spectacular, calamitous, or awesome it is — we should confidently remind ourselves of one simple truth: we have already seen this before. It has already happened in ancient, recent, and perhaps even in modern history. Institutions, states, cities, and families — they all come and go, all the time. Everything that exists is familiar and short-lived. Try adopting this motto: everything that can be seen and known has already been seen and known (7.1). Think about it: studying society for forty years is basically the same as studying it over the course of ten thousand years. The pattern and rhythm of the past is the same today (7.49). At the most fundamental level, life today is the same as it was in times of those we have buried and forgotten (9.14). The folks who come to our own funerals will likewise go on to live lives that are only slight variations of the lives we have lived, until they too die and, like us, are forgotten.

When we begin think this way, we cannot help but see our own lives and times differently. It is like climbing up to the top of the highest mountain and peering down. Below us we see the scurry and bustle of our contemporaries. There they go, herding flocks, amassing capital, getting married, getting divorced, arguing in court, vying for praise, going to festivals, and spending their money. Sure, we might notice some differences between cultures, nations, languages, but from this vantage point, we can see that it is all the same: a medley and mixture of the same fundamental ingredients. (7.48)

If we begin each day acknowledging and accepting this, we might have a fighting chance of escaping the temptation to pour every ounce of our energy into this silly race into oblivion. Let us see it all for what it really is: our lives are not unique. The value of existence has nothing to do with what we will accomplish or be remembered for — because everything has already been done and forgotten a million times before. We’re just temporary cast members filling in the roles for an old, redundant play. (10.27)

To define the value of our existence by our supposed uniqueness is to live the most typical life possible! Behold the most common motif of all: the arrogant man who cries, “In my lifetime, everything will change!” Instead of falling prey to our own delusions of grandeur, let us appreciate every moment for what it is. All we really have, after all, is this moment. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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