The Emperor

My wife was reading to me recently from The Emperor’s Handbook, a collection of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius – short, incisive thoughts on the nature of what it means to be human. If you’re unfamiliar, Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 AD until he was assassinated in 180 AD. That, by my reckoning, was a long time ago, which is always one of the first things I think after she reads me a particularly wise and useful passage. A lot has changed since Aurelius recorded his meditations. For that matter, a lot was changing while he recorded them. The Empire over which he ruled was beginning its slow, inexorable unraveling. In a hundred years it would split in half; two hundred years after that Rome would fall. But the world would keep spinning, and there would be plagues, and new wars, new empires and new religions, science, art, trips to the moon, and Super Bowls. There would also be bookstores, and if Aurelius were to come staggering back from the dead and wander into one of them, he would likely feel as if he had been transported to another world. And yet there amongst all that was so utterly foreign to him would be something wholly familiar, his meditations still intact after nearly two thousand years.

I know writers can be tempted to create with their eye on some concept of immortality. I may pass away, but my works and legacy will live on! Except writing has taught me that immortality is best understood in the act of creating itself, not in the longevity of whatever our creativity produces. Aurelius’s work has endured because what it means to be human has never changed. He turned his creative attention toward his essential self, toward that which was shared by slaves and emperors alike, and translated honestly what he found there.

This still seems like an unusual practice for an emperor. To be so aware of what cannot change even as his days were spent overseeing ceaselessly changing currents of human striving and conflict and woe. Though maybe we are all emperors. Love and loss and kindness and fear are the same for me today as they were yesterday, though this morning brought new stories, new concerns, new interests, and new doubts. How easy it is to feel pulled and buffeted and abused by that current of change, until I turn my attention toward the self that cannot change, and I remember that the current and I are moving together as one.

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Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence. You can find William at:

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