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In his book, Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius talks a lot about fame and the ultimate futility of ambition. Widely regarded as a classic in philosophy, the book explores a diverse range of themes, all of which are still relevant in today’s hectic and fast-paced society.

As the Numero Uno in the ancient world, Marcus had his pick of the spoils of war, not to mention the best holiday retreats the Italian coastline had to offer. Instead, he accepted his military obligations with good grace, and left the safety of Rome to command the legions along the north-eastern border of the Roman Empire.

As commander of the Roman army, he faced constant threats on a daily basis, and in 175 CE, the revolt of several legions commanded by Avidius Cassius, one of his most-trusted generals. Although resolved (the crisis ended with the death of Cassius), Marcus bore no ill will towards his former lieutenant and chose not to take his revenge any further.

Meditations is remarkable for several reasons. For one, it is the only recorded testimony of a Roman emperor, made more intriguing by the fact that it was never intended for publication. The text contains a wisdom that is often profound, sometimes shocking for its seemingly cold-hearted pragmatism, but always accessible to the modern reader.

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, educated in Rome by teachers who had studied under such luminaries as Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. Self-discipline and relative austerity were the bywords of the philosophy, and Marcus absorbed these lessons early on. His privileged position gave him the choices available to only a handful of men in Rome; he could have descended into vice and corruption like so many of his predecessors, but instead he chose to follow a somewhat narrow path, and to seek reason as the highest attainment.

The Stoics advocated the avoidance of pleasure and an acceptance of pain. Their central tenet, the dichotomy of control, asks the pupil to differentiate that which is within his power to control, and that which lies outside. The vagaries of life are seen as inescapable, and events in themselves as having little consequence in the quest for self mastery.

The great majority of people (myself included) strive for some sort of recognition in life. This may only be through family or work connections, whereby the individual gains a sense of security and belonging. But for some this isn’t enough. The drive towards fame and fortune becomes an intoxicant that’s too powerful to resist. To the Stoics, this is a dangerous illusion, leading the seeker away from the path of reason and equanimity.

Herein lies the problem with Stoicism per se. If we consider that our natural state is one of continuous growth and achievement, then the negation or denial of this drive within us can only lead to stagnation. We are all of us born with instincts that determine our course in life. Survival itself requires a continuous striving – even if it’s only for food and shelter.

Nietzsche identified the will to power that’s in every human being. Inspired by the works of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – who viewed the world in extremely pessimistic terms – Nietzsche developed his own ideas about this fundamental aspect of human existence. According to him, the will could be directed in a variety of different ways, but essentially it was insatiable, always seeking new avenues to exploit.

The great religions and spiritual traditions have always provided us with answers to life’s perplexing questions. But in the end, we have to confront our own uniqueness as human beings, the basic truth that no two individuals are exactly the same. These drives and instincts we’ve inherited cannot be supressed without causing psychological harm in the long term. We have to find a way that works for us, however that may conflict with popular opinion.

For all his pessimism, even Schopenhauer recognised beauty in great works of art, having perceived in them a kind of transcendence over the mundane. We could extend his theory even further, to include the noble ruins of antiquity, the music and literature which has informed and enriched our culture down through the ages, and the great sporting achievements which make gods of ordinary men and women.

We don’t know how much credence Marcus Aurelius gave to the great works of art of his day – whether he admired the architecture of the Pantheon or the Baths of Trajan. We do know that he prepared daily for his inevitable demise and eventual obscurity. Most spiritual traditions teach a similar contemplation, alongside a disregard for sensual pleasures, and Marcus was sincere in his efforts to follow these principles.

But searching questions will always remain. Is our brief existence on this earth to be one of denial, ignoring the instincts that would have us striving for challenges, and pushing ourselves beyond our preconceived limits? A powerful force exists in the universe that inspires us to greater heights whenever we take the first steps towards our goals, and gives us the strength to carry on.

It’s true that for some unfortunate people, life really is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, as observed by the 16th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. But for many of us – particularly those of us living in the western world today – there is a freedom to aspire to greater things, a privilege we may not have enjoyed in Hobbes’ time.

Ambition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the works of Marcus Aurelius and his contemporaries might suggest. If we push ourselves as human beings, we discover what we’re made of. By overcoming great odds and achieving the goals we’ve set, we inspire others to do the same. We can even incorporate the practices of Stoicism and other philosophies into our mindsets, to create a programme tailormade for our unique, individual needs.

The joy of achievement – especially that gained after great hardship and suffering – is made sweeter still by the benefits it may bring others. Far from being a selfish act, the pursuit of excellence in one form or another draws others in and encourages them to aim for greater heights themselves. Think of the human race as one big family, here to test ourselves and to be tested, but ultimately to help others to grow and change.

The last word must go, respectfully, to Marcus Aurelius, who grasped the complexities of life perhaps like no other:

‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’

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