Meditations From Antiquity

Craig Jones

In tracing the arc of my own development as a leader, listening for the voices of various teachers and mentors along the way, none strikes me as any more resonant than that of Marcus Aurelius. He was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 and left a record of his thoughts called the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

My first father-in-law – long deceased when his daughter and I split up – suggested I read it, along with Pascal’s Pensees, when I was going through some heavyduty questioning of why I was in college and what I was doing with my life.

These questions were youthful ones, born of a general lack of experience, but he treated both the questions and the callow interrogator with respect. These two volumes are not beach reading by any means, but he believed I would rise to them like trout to fly.

It was the same feeling I had one night when we were at the family vacation home in Bermuda. He and I were standing at twilight overlooking the southern ocean waters below when he lit his pipe and asked, “Isn’t that the perfect Homeric wine dark sea?” He knew I’d read The Odyssey and would get the allusion. By such questions as these do young men get lifted up. I’ll never forget that moment, shared with the former Vice Chancellor of the New York State University System.

So I read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, thanks to him, and let the emperor speak to me. I notice today that at least three lessons about leadership got lodged deeply over the years as a result.

The first was to acknowledge and be grateful for your teachers. Aurelius is a model of gratitude and leadership for me because he begins his book with several pages acknowledging others in his life for what they gave him. Gratitude first, everything else to follow: that’s the way to live and lead, by my lights. The Stoic philosophy and his evident deep desire for self improvement are for me almost incidental. It’s the upfront, right from Jump Street statements about the debt he owed others for who he was, that I most wanted to take on. He was the emperor, for God’s sake, yet he exhaustively listed what he learned and from whom, in the most minute detail.

“From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper, from the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character, from my mother, piety and beneficence, from Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, from Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline, from Apollonius I learned freedom of will and from Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, from Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, from Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, from my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice, and to the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.”

These are but a sample. I read them and think “Here’s a man I would follow.”

Second, I learned somewhere that he had a servant following behind him who constantly said “You are but a man.” That sounds like the kind of discipline a leader who wrote that first chapter would take on.

Finally, I learned to keep a record of this, to help others remember and add to what I’ve learned. He calls out to me to write it down, write it all down, don’t forget this. Give hard-won knowledge away to posterity

It occurs to me that I have, perhaps unknowingly, combined the first and third of these lessons in the blog posts I’ve been writing on gratitude. I don’t have a servant walking behind me, lesson number two, reminding me of my temporality and frailty, but I have his example, at least, speaking to me from out of the deep past.

For none of these lessons is an official leadership job required. What is a leader anyway? Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, has this to say about it. “Leadership is neither a rank nor title. It is a choice. The choice to provide care and protection for those for whom we are responsible.”

I give thanks for my path and my teachers along the way.

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