“I don’t have time to read a book that long,” you might say when someone recommends one of those epic volumes from the Ron Chernows and Robert Caros and Stacy Schiffs of the world. And Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Saints? Or Plutarch? Who has time to read that dusty old collection about the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans?
The answer is that you do. Or rather, that you should make time to study the greats of history.
In Book Four of Meditations, Marcus writes:
“And then you might see what the life of a good man is like—someone content with what nature assigns him, and satisfied with being just and kind himself.”
What’s the “if” that came before the “then” he is referring to? We can only guess. That is the entirety of his writing on this point. But not unlike a Jeopardy answer with multiple possible questions, this one fits:
What is it to study history and biographies?
Marcus and Seneca and Epictetus were all intimately familiar with the lives of the greats (and not-so-greats) that came before them. And in this study they had come to know, as Marcus said, what a good life looked like. They learned from the experiences and the follies of the earlier generations—they saw across the pages of many books why contentment and justice and kindness were so important (and the perils of the opposite traits).
So make a commitment today—this month, this year—to start reading more biographies. It’s an important step in the path to wisdom.