On my desk I have a small bust of Marcus Aurelius, made in 1820 out of carrara marble. As I sit and work, it occasionally catches my eye. When it does, I stop and think about how humbling it is that someone had this made nearly 200 years ago. That is both an eternity and an instant ago. Perhaps we both shared a connection to Marcus Aurelius and his ideas—a resilient thread across history—and yet, we will both die and the object will outlast all of us. The owner could have been rich, poor, man, woman, good, bad, they could have had a hard life or an ideal one. We could be very different people or incredibly similar—but we’re all part of the same passage of time, subject to the same eternal rhythm of events.
In 1863, when this statue was already more than forty years old, Matthew Arnold wrote his famous essay about Marcus Aurelius. This passage is apt and why it’s helpful for us to hold these moral examples up in physical form.
“Long after his death, his bust was to be seen in the houses of private men through the wide Roman empire. It may be the vulgar part of human nature which busies itself with the semblance and doings of living sovereigns, it is its nobler part which busies itself with those of the dead; these busts of Marcus Aurelius, in the homes of Gaul, Britain and Italy, bear witness, not to the intimates’ frivolous curiosity about princes and palaces, but to their reverential memory of the passage of a great man upon the earth.”
And so I look again at this small bust of Marcus and will try to make sure my actions honor his memory.