The kids in my class liked the quotation on the board today from Marcus Aurelius, especially after I connected him with the old emperor played by Richard Harris at the beginning of the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie, Gladiator.
Reflect often how all the life of today is a repetition of the past; and observe that it also presages what is to come.
Which, of course, they simplify to, “If you don’t study history, you have to repeat it.” Or if they’re slightly deeper, “Those who fail to grasp the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.” Or some such nonsense.
Because that’s not what Marcus Aurelius is saying here. As he wrote a little later in the same chapter, “the performance is the same, only the actors change.” He’s saying something more along the lines of Battlestar Galactica‘s “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”
Marcus Aurelius lived shortly after the high point of the Roman Empire. He was considered the last of five good emperors. Antoninus Pius was his mentor, and Antoninius was himself trained and mentored by the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was the disciple and adopted son of Trajan, who was the adopted son of Nerva. And these men were Rome’s last able leaders for almost a century and a half — a century in which Rome’s government descended from a kind of enlightened dictatorship to something resembling a totalitarian police state.
Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification.
Still there are parallels. Marcus Aurelius lived in a time of economic chaos, with wars on two fronts and a fair amount of discontent at home, and an uncertain succession with a complicated system of factions keeping the empire close to civil war. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for kids to read a book by a Stoic philosopher who also happened to be the ruler of the known world of his day.
What could go wrong?
Tomorrow, book one of the Meditations, and the kids’ responses to it. Also, thanks to our tech department, I’m going to be running this reading process online on our school’s intraweb by the middle of next week at the latest, and so we’ll also be learning digitally in the near future! W00t!