Perhaps you remember the final scene of the movie Gladiator. Maximus is wounded, severely, and is fighting against Commodus, who he has just temporarily disarmed. Sword, Commodus shouts to the Praetorian guards, sword! But the soldiers refuse to help him.
Maximus, bleeding badly, drops his sword and begins to drift into unconsciousness. His family is waiting for him in the afterlife. He walks towards them. But with a final exercise of will, he seizes command of himself. Commodus comes at him with a dagger. With his bare hands and faltering strength, Maximus fights Commodus to submission and then kills him, as Commodus impotently struggles against the very weapon he tried to wield. Victorious but dying, Maximus uses his last breaths to order Rome to be restored to the vision of Marcus Aurelius.
It’s a fictional scene—a goosebump-inducing one to be sure—but also, in its own way, an illustration of one of the best passages in Meditations. Be a boxer, not a fencer, Marcus writes to himself. It’s better to have your weapons be a natural part of you than to be something you have to pick up.
Commodus is dependent on his sword. He’s dependent on the power of his office. He’s dependent on fear. He’s at the mercy of his bodyguards. But Maximus? Maximus is his own master. He moves under his own power. He is ruled by dignity, by his own strength, by his own principles, and his own weapons. He doesn’t need anyone or anything, to be great. Even when he is bleeding out and under attack, all he has to do, as Marcus Aurelius writes, is clench his fist.
Which are you? Commodus or Maximus? Self-reliant or an imposter? A tyrant or a gladiator? A boxer or a fencer? If you’re being truly honest, what would your final exercise of will look like?