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(Not) Marcus Aurelius (on reasons for goodness)

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century Stoic philosopher and, for twenty years, Emperor of Rome. I love this statement of the sovereignty of goodness above hairsplitting and vain imaginings. It comes from the Meditations of Aurelius. Actually, I don’t know where it comes from. I’m no classics scholar, and I was nearly fooled. It sounded so good to be quoting a famous but under-read (including by me!) philosopher.

According to WikiQuote, there is no record of such a statement before 2010. It’s an Internet creation, and though I can’t recall how I first came across it, it must have been on-line. It was written by someone, of course, perhaps a classics student who wanted to pretty up or simplify Marcus Aurelius. It has become attributed to him. Who cares?

I do, though I still like the message and its artful cutting of the bitter knots of competitive theology and self-righteous position-taking. Just be good, and be done with it. Nice. Wikiquotes discusses a possible source in Aurelius, of which the above quotation, however agreeable, is at best a paraphrase. The quote, still, is worth thinking about, but so is Internet rumouring, the dark lining to the brightness of the readily available, democratized knowledge found in the e-clouds. Does it matter where good ideas come from?

Here’s a genuine quote from Aurelius. (I think — it comes from WikiQuotes; long before such a thing was imaginable, my high school English teacher Pete Hill pilloried me for “the evil of Bartlett’s [Familiar Quotations]“: of course, browsing for delicious, out-of-context bits instead of reading in depth; the tendency to gild our writing with these Greatest Bits from the Big Thinkers, even when they didn’t fit; and, in my adolescent case, adding extra quotes that I couldn’t find a place for within the body of my essays, which therefore appeared “quite tacked-on”. Peter was good. I still love quotations, but I try to keep them honest.) Right. Marcus Aurelius said:

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

Comment (1)

  1. Bahereh

    Wow! Beautiful quote! Very powerful, and it does not leave any room for excuses.
    Should remind myself of this every day!
    Thank you James!
    Bahereh

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