The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius have carried through the centuries, the Stoic, inner thoughts of a Roman Emperor, and reflect the philosophical and moralistic core of not just an Emperor’s private reflections, but the moralistic ethos of Western society, a moralistic ethos that can also be seen in Freemasonry. The Meditations contain a central theme of reflecting on one’s judgement of others and a nurturing of one’s cosmic perspective; a way of contemplating man’s place in the Universe and to live in accordance with nature. Marcus Aurelius ruled from AD 161 to 180, and his twelve books of Meditations, were probably never meant to be published. The writings, which take the form of varying lengths of quotations from one sentence to a large paragraph, were composed as reflections to provide guidance and self-improvement for the Emperor himself. Some of the Meditations were written whilst Marcus Aurelius was on campaign in Pannonia – a Roman Province that included part of modern day Hungary – and in Carnuntum – located in modern day Austria. He is considered to be the last of the Five Good Emperors, who, according to the Freemason Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, conducted their rule with ‘virtue’ and created a ‘prosperous condition’.
The Meditations can be seen as a spiritual guide, but not just as an instruction manual for the self, they reveal the deeper contemplations of a philosopher who was understanding the process of life, death and indeed the void before and after:
‘You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite’ (Meditations, Book 9).
Here it is suggested that we remove all our troubled thoughts and contemplate our true position in the Cosmos, to contemplate time, and that we are indeed insignificant to the Grand scheme of things.
Similarly, from the first degree working tools in the English Emulation ritual, when describing the common Gavel, which represents the force of conscience, we are notified it is used to ‘knock off all superfluous knobs and excrescences’, which we are informed should ‘keep down all vain and unbecoming thoughts…so that our words and actions may ascend unpolluted to the Throne of Grace.’ Like in the Meditations, we are advised that our negative thoughts should be removed and then we continue along the pathway to become better men.
The Meditations contain spiritual exercises that can effectively make a good man better, a similar theme found within Freemasonry, which certainly holds similar self-teaching values, values that can motivate and guide the learner down the sometimes dark pathway of life. The Meditations, in a similar way to the teachings in the third degree of Freemasonry, urge us to not be afraid of death, but as a part of nature, we should embrace it at the end. In doing so we become aware of our mortality:
‘How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are- all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe. To observe too who these are whose opinions and voices give reputation; what death is, and the fact that, if a man looks at it in itself, and by the abstractive power of reflection resolves into their parts all the things which present themselves to the imagination in it, he will then consider it to be nothing else than an operation of nature; and if anyone is afraid of an operation of nature, he is a child. This, however, is not only an operation of nature, but it is also a thing which conduces to the purposes of nature. To observe too how man comes near to the deity, and by what part of him, and when this part of man is so disposed’ (Meditations, Book 2).
Life itself is put forward as a series of lessons, higher degrees of learning, and that we are all part of the same.
‘Thus the ascent to the higher degree is able to produce a sympathy even in things which are separated’ (Meditations, Book 9).
In a quotation that reflects the essay of David Hume Of Miracles from the Age of Enlightenment, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that Reason and logic should rule over superstition:
‘From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things’ (Meditations, Book 1).
The Meditations provide a knowledge of oneself being in harmony with nature, that we are forever entwined with mechanisms of the Divine, knowing that we are part of the Universe itself:
‘All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by Providence. From thence all things flow; and there is besides necessity, and that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part’ (Meditations, Book 2).
The perception of life, of self-development and becoming a better person, is something that, according to the Meditations, can be attained by understanding the world about you, by realising that to enrich the soul is the most important thing, not to surround yourself with riches and material wealth, as these do not last, only the soul survives the body to become one with the Divinity:
‘Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgement. And, to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion’ (Meditations, Book 2).
The Masonic ritual gives us similar teachings to the centuries old Meditations; an example being charity, relief and truth, and as we experience the third degree which presents our rebirth into Masonry, we are thus enlightened into a new awareness of a true light, a light that can guide us into becoming a better person. The Meditations hold similar teachings in morality and supply perceptions of nature, the soul and of life and death, which also resonate in the work of the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century. They do indeed still resonate today.
 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (London: Bison Books, 1979), p.11.
 John Sellers, The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p.150.
 See David Harrison, The Genesis of Freemasonry, (Hersham: Lewis Masonic, 2009).