Marcus Aurelius is neither a sublime mystic nor a brilliant poet, but he is an admirable devotional writer. He convinces every reader of his sincerity, even of his humility, no mean trick for a Roman emperor, and he seems primarily concerned with stilling his own mind; indeed, he seems indeed to have called his volume Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν or To Himself. Christians were quite right to value this work; its attitude, though not its language and imagery, is strikingly similar to Thomas a Kempis in urging ego-sacrifice and acceptance as the highest wisdom.
Yet, the philosophical and emotional differences are significant. Concerning the former, I will only note that, though Marcus intuitively accepts the quasi-theistic Logos, he consistently qualifies his comments by admitting that the more materialist Epicureans may in the end have it right. Though this may imply that Thomas embraces god more whole-heartedly, yet Marcus is the one for whom the world is illuminated, with divinity all about him, while Thomas focuses on his own shortcomings, the “fallen-ness” of the world, and the otherness of the divine.
After reminding readers at the beginning of Book III of the fragility and brevity of life, Marcus pushes the point, adding that one must strive for enlightenment since, even before death, senility can destroy an individual’s mind. Immediately then, without transition, he moves into a glorious poetic passage that betrays the fundamental emotional origins of the joyful affirmation that underlies his philosophic posture.
It is necessary to pay close attention to those things consequent to nature’s changes which have each one a charm and an allure. Thus some splits appear in the crust of baking bread, and these have nothing to do with the baker’s plan, yet these have always a certain rightness and stir up a stronger desire for food. And also figs, when they are ripest, gape, and in overripe olives the very closeness to decay adds some beauty to the fruit, and the lion’s furrowed brow, and the foam from the mouths of a boar at bay, and many other things, which, if examined severally, seem far from fair in form, still, having developed closely following the principles of nature, these all help to adorn the world and attract the soul. Thus, if one has a feeling and deeper thoughts concerning the things that come to be in the cosmos, hardly any at all of the things that happen fail to be sweet.
This enthusiastic attitude is the more striking as he regularly goes beyond skepticism into what sounds like nihilism. In Book VII he compiles a list of metaphors for life reminiscent of Macbeth’s “Life's but a walking shadow . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The Diamond Sutra offers a longer series: “like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
I do not mean to suggest that these poetic assertions are precisely equivalent. Marcus’ metaphors form a unique semiotic field. It is useful to consider each separately. The notion of a “grand procession of empty bustle” suggests indeed the vacancy or vanity of “busy-ness,” but sets it against the magnificent pageant of existence. The theater metaphor (similar to Shakespeare’s Jaques saying “All the world’s a stage” or the implications of Calderón’s La vida es sueño) justifies his reminders to himself that, born an emperor, he must accept his lot no less than a peasant or a beast; one is, after all, simply playing a role. As a play, the human condition is presumably beautiful and absorbing, though it may be ultimately absurd. The animals come next, reminding the reader that a human has no greater place in the cosmos than they. And even then, after sheep and cattle, the image shifts following the interruption of the “contending spears” image, a neat representation of pushy egos. The zoological diminuendo then continues, first to puppies, then fish, then ants, then not mice merely, but little mice. The series concludes with the grim determinist metaphor of puppets. (Elsewhere, Marcus says our desires are what make us puppets.) The potentially bleak implications of this may seem to overwhelm the joy of apprehending the the Logos or World-Fire, but in fact, the final clauses warn against pride, admonishing the reader to be generous and great-hearted to others who may be less enlightened.
[Life is] a grand procession of empty bustle, action on a stage, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, clatter of contending spears, a little bone tossed to puppies, bits of food tossed into a fishpond, the arduous labor of ants who carry great burdens, a scattering of little mice in all directions, puppets controlled with strings. It is necessary then to be gracious and not to show disdain, realizing that each has merit to the extent that those things do with which he occupies himself.