It’s unlikely, given his feelings about the Christians, that Marcus Aurelius ever read any of the books in the Old Testament, but if he had read Ecclesiates he might have liked what he saw. Because like the Stoic observations that fill Meditations, over and over again, this book of the Bible comments on the timeless repetition of history.
“The thing that hath been,” we read in one part, “it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” In another: “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” In another: “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.”
“Whatever happens has always happened,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.” So maybe he did read Ecclesiates? Or maybe that’s actually the point? Which is that we are constantly discovering the things we forgot and thus independently coming to the same conclusions over and over again.
Marcus wanted to remind himself that his reign was not any different than the reign of Vespasian. It was filled with people doing the same things: eating, drinking, fighting, dying, worrying, and craving. And the future, even with its magnificent technological advancements, would be much the same. Forever and ever.
“Time is a flat circle,” Rustin Cohle says in the first season of True Detective. “Everything we have done or will do, we will do over and over and over again, forever.” And so it was that another generation found out about Nietzche’s idea of “eternal recurrence,” which is itself that same idea we find in Marcus Aurelius, which is the same idea in the Bible, which probably, and humblingly, goes back even further than that.
But that’s life, the same thing happening again and again, always and forever.
P.S. This was originally sent on October 16, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.