With that said, it’s still important to remember that this is a work of literature that implores us to act. In Book X, Section 16, Aurelius writes, “No more abstract discussion about what a good man is like: just be one!” Which returns us to the giant column in the Piazza Colonna. You come away from reading Meditations: The Annotated Edition with the sense that the column was just the sort of thing the philosophical emperor would have disdained. Flattery and adulation. Cartoonish veneration of power and luck. What might a more appropriate monument to the values of Aurelius be? A couple thousand years after the erection of the Aurelian column, Navy pilot and student of Stoicism James Bond Stockdale was being regularly tortured in a Hanoi POW camp. In the process of taking a final stand against the torture of his fellow prisoners, he nearly died in a rather theatrical suicide attempt. “After a couple of months in a tiny isolated cell we called Calcutta to let my arms heal,” Stockdale writes in Courage Under Fire, “they blindfolded me and walked me right into the … cell block. The isolation and special surveillance were over.” The more brutal forms of torture, too. For everyone. After Stockdale’s return to the block, a fellow prisoner slipped him a note written with a rat turd on a piece of toilet paper. It was the last verse of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:
It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Stockdale’s bravery, inspired in large part by his study of Stoicism, and the response of his fellow prisoner, are more appropriate memorials to Marcus Aurelius than a column of marble photographed by tourists in a sunny Roman plaza.
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