Coachlines - April 2020

02.04.20 Honorary Assistant John Blauth

It has happened before… and will again

“On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings, I looked upon the street to see a gaggle of striplings, no doubt spreading the plague. Not a care had these rogues for the health of their elders.” – Samuel Pepys, 1664.

In between burying a large Parmesan cheese in his garden to escape the Great Fire and looking after Naval procurement, Pepys was an assiduous student of the classics. From his reading he realised that there is not much that took place in the development of ideas and thought – or cataclysms – since the end of the Greco Roman empire and his day, or ours, that was, or is, new.

While we are confined to quarters, and as soon as we come swiftly to the realisation that 98.1 per cent of what is on offer on Her Majesty’s internet is either a lie, a mistake, a scam, pornography or an apparently grinning household pet, here is the first in a series about soothing titles to help stimulate your grey matter in this beautifully quiet time. Reading is generally more interesting than gazing into one’s navel in search of glittering jewels that, alas, are often not there.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a collection of private thoughts by the then world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to deliver on the responsibilities and obligations of his position. Trained in Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius practiced daily to remind himself to be humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever it was with which he was dealing.

It is an eminently readable and perfectly accessible book. It is said that no human can read it and not come away with at least one phrase or line that will be helpful in times of trouble. In other words it is practical philosophy for every human person.

Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 A.D. He was a Stoic and wrote about its practice in his journals. Machiavelli, who makes present day SPADs look like the village idiots they almost certainly are, described his reign as a “golden time” and him as the last of the ‘five good emperors.’

Meditations has been called a somewhat inscrutable book because it was written for personal clarity and not public benefit. It contains many sayings, not organised by theme, though certain ideas keep appearing, underlining the point that much of Stoicism is journaling and going over the same ideas. The aim is to remind yourself constantly of the standards you have set for yourself, who you aspire to be, and noting, not punishing yourself, when you fail.

This is a book of action and advice. Its teaching is meant to be practiced and used, and when Marcus Aurelius writes about the certainty of death and how relatively soon it will come, he is not idly philosophising. He recommends that this knowledge should inform our decision-making and how we view the events of our lives. Instead of theorising about what we should do if either there is a guiding intelligence in the universe, or if everything is just atoms, he prescribes Stoic thinking and explains why both possible truths would lead to the same best actions and beliefs.

Those actions are to thank people who have had a positive influence on one’s life, with a special focus on those who instilled the traits characteristic of a good Stoic. These include valuing reason above all else, not being absorbed by petty things, limiting passions and desires, sober decision-making followed by a firm commitment to the choice made; honesty and never being secretive, cheerfulness in the face of obstacles, avoiding superstition and the influence of sophistry.

In other words, the same ethos as followed by the Royal Marines, the French Foreign Legion and the Parachute Regiment would be as understandable to Marcus as it is to these military men who have no superiors and few, if any, equals.

Read Meditations and when the present excitement is ended, your life may be changed. Possibly forever.

If you fancy a genuine belly laugh about the human condition, may I suggest A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole?
The title is a quote from Dean Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” The central character, Ignatius J Reilly, would be unsuitable as a member of our Livery; meet him in the pages of this book instead.