Simon Kelner: An ancient philosopher for the Twitter generation

Kelner's view

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The Romans were a pretty clever bunch, what with inventing the calendar, central heating, concrete, roads and civic society. It is possible that they also pre-figured the advent of Twitter.

In yesterday's i, among the 10 best self-help books we featured was a collection of the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, who, as well as his day job as Roman Emperor, was a devoted student of philosophy. Some of the pieces of knowledge he bequeathed were more than 140 characters long, but it is pretty remarkable that his Meditations, written when he was waging war in central Europe AD170, should still pack a punch almost 2,000 years later. Not only was Marcus Aurelius the Alain de Botton of his day, he's a best-seller today; Bill Clinton, a man noted for his his interest in matters spiritual, pronounced it his favourite book, and it's there in the best-sellers chart.

It is very much philosophy for the Twitter generation. No time to wade through a dense tract of complex thinking when you've got to keep up with Facebook, and the Euros are on? Well, Marcus Aurelius is your man. His tome is a compilation of aperçus and observations that you can dip in and out of, taking a lesson then getting on with your life.

There are 12 books that make up Meditations and it is thought that Marcus Aurelius wrote them for his own elucidation, not intending them for a wider audience, never mind the Amazon rankings. I am convinced that a few minutes with the old Roman every day, while not necessarily making you a better person, would certainly help you to get more sense in your life. "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact," he wrote. "Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." How about that? A little profundity for for the age of spin, PR and political manipulation.

One of my favourites is the following – "When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. That's because they can't tell good from evil." Blimey. Even Roman Emperors must have had to deal with the banks.

There's a modern relevance in almost everything he says. "The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts" doesn't present too much of a challenge in a sound-bite culture, and, as a live-now, ask-questions-later man myself, I am particular gratified to get some guidance: "Do not act as if you are going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good."

And for those of us who have the burden of a column to shoulder every day: "When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive." I'm sure Marcus Aurelius would never have imagined someone writing this, but Meditations is available at all good bookshops, priced £4.99.

 

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