It's hard to envisage the book being issued as a self-help manual to coalition forces. At least one aperçu appears to endorse the hand-to-hand fighting our generals are so anxious to avoid: "The fencer's weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer's is part of him. All he has to do is clench his fist." Marcus isn't always on-message. But he has important advice to give on pain-management: "Nothing happens to anyone that he can't endure." As for non-combatants depressed by the carnage, the message is to count our blessings: "It's unfortunate that this has happened. No. It's unfortunate that this has happened and I've remained unharmed by it." Cynical? Selfish? Just common sense.
Marcus wrote his Meditations as a series of pensées or spiritual exercises. How far they can make you feel better will depend on your belief in human progress. Marcus is clear on the point. All of this has happened before - the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. People repeat themselves from generation to generation - "marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping others will die, complaining..." Nothing new under the sun, and nothing we can do to change it: "You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they'll still go on doing it." Life isn't pretty. It's like rotting meat in a bag. Or like the baths - "oil, sweat, dirt, grayish water, all of it disgusting". In short, it's a "wretched, whining monkey life". But once you accept this, says Marcus, you'll cheer up.
Everything was born to die: that's his second great theme. Dying is a natural process, as necessary as sex and childbirth, and whether we die today or 50 years from now doesn't much matter, since we're just a drop in the ocean of time: "Before long all of us will be laid out side by side." Celebrities, presidents, doctors furrowing their brows at endless deathbeds - they all have to go. From Pompeii to Herculaneum, cities too must meet their end. "Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash." Why bewail death? Life is so petty and wearying - "pointless bustling of processions, opera arias, herds of sheep and cattle, military exercises, a bone flung to pet poodles, a little food in the fish tank" - death should be welcomed as a precious release. It's the spirit that matters, not the "battered crate" of the body. "You boarded, you set sail, you've made the passage. Time to disembark."
Shit happens. The gods are unfathomable. No one's to blame. Marcus's line on this might seem to induce a certain passivity. But stoicism doesn't mean quiescence. "Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life," he advises - you can commit injustices by doing nothing. Above all, strive to make yourself a better person. Control your arrogance. Stop getting angry with stupid and unpleasant people. Be upright, modest, straightforward and cooperative. When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that what makes you human is working with others. And when people become a pain, and you want to get away from it all, to the country, beach or mountains, remember you can escape any time you like, by going within, to "the back roads of your self".
In Marcus's universe, everything has a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. Man's purpose, as a thinking…