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Ecclesiastes and the Emperor

Date Tuesday, 16th March 2021

Preached by Evan John

I decided to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for two very profound reasons. Firstly, Doctor Who’s Clara Oswald is a fan of his and, secondly, I found a version narrated by Thorin Oakenshield himself (well, Richard Armitage at any rate).

I don’t really understand much philosophy. On the rare occasions I think I do, I soon find myself flummoxed by the first page of any book about the subject. So I was relieved to find that I could understand what this Roman Emperor and philosopher was saying. The Meditations were written as the author’s own personal reflections, making them relatively easy to read.

I thought it might be worth sharing a few things that the book has taught me.

The main thing that struck me about the Meditations is that it can sometimes sound like the Bible. Replace the occasional references to the Gods with God and parts of it could well have come from Paul’s letters. I imagine that listening to it is like listening to the Bible as someone who doesn’t believe in God. Like them, I found myself trying to take note of the wisdom while ignoring the weirdness.

And some bits are full of wisdom. For example, he advises us to avoid malicious or prying thoughts, telling us to instead think ’only those thoughts such that, in answer to the sudden question “What is in your mind now?”, you could say with immediate frankness whatever it is.” To me, that seems like such a good summary of how we should apply all that the Bible says about being loving in our attitudes as well as our actions.

Similarly, the parts of the Meditations that focus on the fleeting nature of life would not look out of place in Ecclesiastes; “Soon, very soon, you will be ashes or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name”. But it is in places like these that we see the limits of Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom. It’s true that he sometimes tells us to remember the joy of being alive and to be thankful for what we have, but he also advises us to look at the things we enjoy and ‘see the shoddiness [and] strip away their own boastful account of themselves.’ Seeing that the things we enjoy are fleeting, he concludes that this makes them less valuable. For the writer of the Ecclesiastes, however, this doesn’t rob it of its value. We can still enjoy these fleeting things because they are gifts from a loving Creator. And while the gifts He gives to us in this life may not last forever, He does.

His response to suffering, meanwhile, seems too detached to be of any use in this world. For him, it is our thoughts that cause suffering. “Choose not to be harmed and you will not feel harmed.” If only it were so simple. Although it’s undoubtedly true that the way we think can cause or worsen suffering, the idea that it is always a choice to be harmed by pain or misfortune strikes me as perverse. This approach to suffering stands in contrast to that of Jesus, who cried over the death of Lazarus and still suffered on the cross even though He knew it was the right thing to do.

It’s in Jesus that I find the greatest contrast between the teaching of the Bible and that of the Meditations. In one of his most quotable sections, Marcus Aurelius urges himself “waste no more time arguing what a good man is. Be one.” And therein lies the problem. Like any philosopher whose words we might listen to, Marcus Aurelius was just one man trying to be good. But the teaching of the Bible is embodied in the perfect behaviour of Jesus. Like any human work of philosophy, the Meditations can provide us with some valuable wisdom, but it lacks the authority that could ever make it the ultimate guide to how to live our lives.

Quotations taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which uses Martin Hammond’s translation.