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The Last Words Of Marcus Aurelius

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It’s one of the most haunting paintings you’ll ever see. More than 11 feet wide and 8 feet tall, painted in rich but dark oils, Eugene Delacroix (a student of the Stoics) captures Marcus Aurelius at the end of his life. A plague has devastated Rome. His troubled son stands in the wings, unlikely to rule well. Marcus has had a hard life, filled with adversity, not meeting, as one historian noted, “with the good fortune he deserved”

Yet he strived to do right and to be good. He escaped “imperialization” in his words, avoided being “Caesarified” and dyed purple by the power of his position. He kept the faith, kept the empire going, doing his best. And now, weak and frail, the end was here. He knew, as he would say to his bodyguard, that the sun was setting.

With his last breaths, he is said to have grabbed the attention of his friends–who are shown weeping and gathered round in Delacroix’s painting. “Why do you weep for me?” Marcus asked them. They should be thinking of the plague and all the lives it had claimed, they should be focused on getting their own affairs in order. And while these and the words Marcus said to his bodyguard and his actual final words, the last lines in Meditations are worth musing on today as they are as beautiful and haunting as the great painting. As Gregory Hays renders them:

“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The law makes no distinction.

And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible?

Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor:

‘But I’ve only gotten through three acts…!’

Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine.

So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.”

As we detail in his chapter in Lives of the Stoics, the life of Marcus Aurelius is one that teaches us how to live well. And because he lived well, Marcus’ story is also one that teaches us how to go out well. With grace. With strength. With empathy. With the comfort from knowing that he lived a good life as a good man. Maybe you’ve read Meditations front to back dozens of times, but if you haven’t studied his life, his last words, his example, you must.