One of the pleasures of re-reading a book, re-watching a film, re-visiting a place, is that you always discover something new. The Stoics were fond of the idea — which comes from Heraclitus — that we never step in the same river twice. I have found this to be true when it comes to Marcus Aurelius, a man I have written about and studied now for nearly a decade and a half. Each time I read his writing, each time I talk about him, each time I visit a museum or place he lived, I understand him a little differently. I think about him differently. He speaks to me a little differently.
He teaches me something new.
It is amazing Meditations, year after year and read after read, feels both incredibly timely and incredibly timeless (there’s a reason the book has endured now for almost twenty centuries). It’s amazing that a person so famous — known to millions in his own lifetime and subject to countless books and articles and movies — could still be giving off new secrets, but indeed that’s what he’s doing.
In today’s post, I thought I would share some of the ones I have discovered, things you probably don’t know about one of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, and leaders who ever lived.
-He lived through a pandemic. Not just through a pandemic, but they named it after him! The Antonine Plague of 165 CE, a global pandemic with a mortality rate of between 2–3%, began with flu-like symptoms until it escalated and became gruesome and painfully fatal. Millions were infected. Between 10 and 18 million people eventually died. The fact that Marcus Aurelius was writing during a plague, that he may well have died of a plague created a different way for me to see and understand what Marcus was writing about. When he says “you could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think” — he was talking about that in a time when you really could leave life right now. When he talks about how there’s two kinds of plagues: the plague that can take your life and the plague that can destroy your character — he was talking about the things that we’re seeing in the world, that we saw on a daily basis over the last two years. He was writing about a fracturing Rome, a contentious Rome when people were at each other’s throats, when things looked uncertain, when an empire looked…