There are a lot of recurring themes and messages in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and one that I’ve found myself thinking about quite a lot recently is his assertion that history is constantly repeating itself, and hence no problem is ever completely new.
What I find interesting about this is that I actually discounted this assertion when I first came across his remarks about it in the book. I mean, this book was written almost 2000 years ago, and a lot has changed since then, right?
In Book 2, Marcus writes:
…all things have been of the same kind from everlasting, coming round and round again, and it makes no difference if one will see the same things for a hundred years, or two hundred years, or for an infinity of time.
I read this book a long time ago now, but I’m sure that when I read that sentence, I probably didn’t give it a second thought (except maybe to think how horrible it would be to live for two hundred years, and to think that it was a vast over-generalisation). But as I continued to read Meditations, and realised that Aurelius was addressing quandaries and dilemmas that I could relate to, I found the kernel of truth in it.
When people asked me about my thoughts on the book, this actually became the thing I talked about the most: the fact that this book, written two millennia ago, still has relevance today. Sure, maybe it’s just because human morals and values haven’t really changed much over the years – things like honesty, justice, integrity and kindness are pretty universally valued and encouraged – but what about all the problems? All the things that people struggled with over the centuries – including how to uphold all these values – are still being wrestled with today.
Isn’t it incredible?
But, rather than being some condemnation of the folly of humankind, the way I see it, Marcus Aurelius intended all this to be comforting and consoling. For example:
All is familiar: no cause then for fear of anything new.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 8, Chapter 6
Enough of this miserable way of life … Why are you troubled? What is new in this?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9, Chapter 37
I will admit that when I read these, even so far into Meditations, I still had my reservations about how correct or applicable these assertions were. What if this thing that’s troubling me is actually something I haven’t experienced or encountered before? I haven’t lived that long, nor have I studied that extensively (although I suppose I’ve lived a decent amount of time, and studied more than some – not that I remember all of it anyway – but that’s all beside the point).
My first reaction was to think that, no, it is not possible for me or anyone to know about all of the problems that ever were and ever will be, so of course there will be new problems. And if there are new inventions, new creations, and new people with new minds – surely all of these can bring new and unique problems?
But then I realised I wasn’t thinking about this in the right way.
It’s not really about the actual problem in itself, but about the skeleton of it. The fundamental problems are all the same. Maybe it’s to do with someone else’s perception of you or something you’ve done; or maybe it’s to do with your fear of the unknown, or anxious speculation about an uncertain future. Perhaps you’ve had the same quarrel with someone else, but that time you were standing on the other side, so you couldn’t immediately recognise the present quarrel as being mirrored from the previous.
I actually wrote the bulk of this post several weeks ago, but I’d held off on publishing it because I felt like I wasn’t explaining this very well – it felt like it all made more sense in my head, and then got jumbled as I tried to articulate my thoughts. But then I had a bit of lightbulb moment…
Have you ever felt like there was a book/movie/song/whatever that perfectly described your life or something you were experiencing? (I’ve long believed there’s a song for every situation and every feeling.) And how many times have you heard someone say (or thought this yourself) that a particular story is so similar to one that came before it? (e.g. Avatar and Pocahontas)
And better yet, what about all the examples – all the proof – in the blogging world? I don’t know how many times I’ve read blogs from random people around the world, and found stories I could relate to. It’s like history is repeating itself many times over, all over the globe. This is the sort of thing that evokes a very humbling and soothing sense of awe in me.