The Art of Paraphrasing Philosophical Maxims
If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.
This epigram is found at the end of a Vatican manuscript of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most widely-read spiritual and philosophical classics of all time. Readers of The Meditations are usually aware that Marcus was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. However, they often don’t realize how much more we know about him.
Marcus studied rhetoric under Fronto for many years, and learned certain techniques from him that appear to have shaped the writing of The Meditations.
In my recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, I drew upon the surviving evidence to make connections between Marcus’ life and thought. We have three main contemporary biographical sources: The Historia Augusta, Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana, and Herodian’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus.
In addition to these, one of our most important sources is a cache of letters belonging to Marcus’ family friend and rhetoric tutor Marcus Cornelius Fronto. These were discovered in the early 19th century by the Italian scholar Angelo Mai. They give us a remarkable window into the private life of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher.
We learn, for instance, that Marcus was, in private, an exceptionally warm and affectionate man. He also shows evidence of being adept at diplomacy and at resolving conflicts between his friends. As we’ll see, Marcus studied rhetoric under Fronto for many years, and learned certain techniques from him that appear to have shaped the writing of The Meditations.
“It is that I learn from you to speak the truth. That matter (of speaking the truth) is precisely what is so hard for gods and men…” — Marcus
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