Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

M. AURELIUS - Meditations (Book 3)

The Nashville Public Library owns 66 books on Alzheimer’s disease. There are 24 books on Down syndrome and 76 on the topic of “learning disabled.” Obviously there’s a great deal of interest in helping people who have difficulty understanding things most people take for granted. Some people may be concerned about a child, a parent, a grandparent or friend. Others may be worried about the impact their own Alzheimer’s disease will have on their families. But it also underscores the anxiety many people have of losing control of their mental capacities. The failure to fully comprehend the world around us strikes a deep fear in the human psyche. Understanding makes us who we are. Marcus hits on this theme when he writes about what he calls living in “dotage” - “We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.” In other words, our minds may fail before our bodies do. We should prepare ourselves accordingly.

How do we do that? We can make preparations through living wills, pre-written letters, and documents written while we still have our full faculties. But these are transitory worldly things. Marcus is mostly concerned with the permanent things, the eternal things. By all means we should take care of legal matters while we’re still capable of functioning normally. Beyond that Marcus thinks you should “apply yourself to the task before you (and) you will live happily.” If legal and medical matters are before us then we should be doing them well. Later when the time comes and death lies before us then we should be dying well. We need to do it properly and graciously, with human dignity. This is a philosophy that teaches us to do only a few things in life but to do those few things extraordinarily well.

What would Marcus make of today’s fast paced multi-tasking society? His outlook involves “casting aside other things, hold to the precious few…” Finding out those “precious few” things takes wisdom. Modern American society places premiums on competence, shrewd judgment, quick thinking and innovative ideas. These qualities all have a high value in today’s marketplace economy. Where does wisdom fit into this scheme of things? Good question. Marcus may tell the modern businessman to stick to a few basic things: know your product, know your market, and know your customer. He’s a firm believer in fulfilling one’s duties to the community and the state so he would also want us to be informed citizens and consumers. Our family commitments should also be included. The famous Packers football coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his players that only three things really matter: God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers. Marcus Aurelius and Vince Lombardi would get along just fine.

Wisdom for Marcus Aurelius is the ability to know the true value of things and use them accordingly. Since we’re rational creatures we should act that way. We should be in harmony with nature and with our fellow human beings. Marcus says we should “no longer wander at hazard” but live a life of duty and purpose. Living in a haphazard manner isn’t just a sign of laziness. We become what Marcus calls “an abscess in the universe.” This is a vivid way of saying that we’re out of sync with nature. The question for modern Americans may be this: what if our whole culture is out of sync with nature? Would Marcus prefer us to be out of sync with our fellow human beings? This is a case where his philosophy may cause conflict. We shouldn’t have to choose between living in harmony with society or living in harmony with nature. But this is a broader social and political problem. On a personal level we need to stick to the task at hand and contemplate our own “appointed end.” There’s one fate that awaits us all in the end - death. Marcus Aurelius is very clear how he thinks we should face it: “you have embarked, made the voyage, and come to shore – get out.” Vince Lombardi would agree.


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