The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Short vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair.  His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away…  He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while…  he waits…  he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention…  He imagines looking at his body from the outside…  at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing…  He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective…  Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed…  He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body…  He looks down on the camp around him…  He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests…  He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers…  He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there…  going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…  Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them…  He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers…  where one country ends and another begins…  and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you…  silently turning…  majestic and beautiful…

You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth… Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life…  The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective.  Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth…  toward the real world, and the present moment…  toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes…  He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

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One thought on “The Emperor Meditates Before Battle”

  1. Greetings,

    Outstanding post!

    I like how a strong, deep, contemplative life is connectedness to Marcus Aurelius. It is one wherein he is not cloistered in a cave, divorced from humanity. Rather, he serves humanity, and his meditations (like described above) enable him to access his deepest/highest perspectives by which he can be – and continue to evolve toward – the best human being he can be.

    I have read in the past critiques of people stating that the Stoics might seem unrealistically “too perfect,” or “too saintly.” I understand the point they are trying to make. I also realize, however, that the more ancient philosophers also continuously pointed to a fact that a human being can be so much more when we have come to be conditioned to think.

    What if we, by concluding that the typical modern human is “all there is,” wall ourselves off from levels of realization and completeness that can indeed be reached through different striving? I personally refuse to believe in these modern critiques. I choose, instead, to at least not lock the door on the potential for the essence of a human being to melioristically unfurl.

    This post is excellent in many ways. I thank you for it.

    All good wishes,

    robert

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