The Right Way For Us to Live
This column is reprinted from the April issue of PineStraw magazine.
During my lonely freshman year at college way down in the eastern part of this state, April became my favorite month for a couple of reasons, both modern and ancient.
To begin with, April was when the sun shone, gardens bloomed, birds and honeybees performed their timeless dance of life, and the tanned legs of coeds were suddenly so numerous I could have sworn they belonged to an army of Aegean goddesses I read about in professor Luis Acevez’s Latin and Greek classics class.
With my first occasionally homesick year away from home nearly concluded and summer break looming on the horizon, I spent several glorious afternoons just pedaling a second-hand bicycle through the flat green countryside of rural eastern North Carolina trying to imagine what curious things might lie just over the horizon. I occasionally played golf with my two roommates and a bunch of pot-bellied tobacco farmers who’d built their own course over in Ayden — always with a slim copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in my hip pocket or golf bag.
In retrospect, the way I wound up in professor Acevez’s classics class was either pretty sad or pretty amusing, a happy accident of sorts — although, as I was soon to glean from both him and “The Philosopher King,” there are really no such things as accidents or coincidences in this universe.
In a nutshell, I was disgraceful in math, specifically terrified of calculus and trigonometry. A budding Archimedes I was not.
At East Carolina, however, fragrantly abloom that April, some kind administrative soul — perhaps a long-suffering English major and fellow math flunkie — created a curriculum that offered chronic math-challenged types a way to avoid the torture of a solitary advanced mathematics requirement: the option of being able to take three optional courses in either Latin, rhetoric or logic, the three plinths of the classical education.
Given the trouble I was having keeping my first checkbook balanced that first year, the three-for-one bailout option seemed like a real bargain, or at least a way to avoid GPA meltdown. So first quarter I took Latin I, followed by a winter quarter in Latin II, discovering I had an unexpected affinity for all things Greek and Roman. Both classes were taught by professor Acevez, a dapper and cosmopolitan son of Guadalajara, Mexico, who favored Harris tweeds and striped bow ties — John Houseman with a Spanish accent.
Contrary to the popular notion that Greek and Latin were dead or dying Romance languages, Professor A. preached that the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome were the cornerstones upon which all of Western society was built — shaping our world views, institutions and favorite stories to this day. He argued the fundamental basis for our understandings of nature and life and even God evolved from the great thinkers and philosophers of the age of Peracles and the glory of Rome.
Most of all, in the face of a volatile and ever-changing world — perfectly symbolized at that moment by an unpopular war that was winding down and the first Middle Eastern terrorist attacks, a pending oil embargo that would produce long lines at the gas pump — Professor A. believed the spiritual teachings of Marcus Aurelius, the last great Caesar, as he called him, “the Philosopher King,” answered the timeless question first posed by Socrates to his pupils over two thousand years ago: “What is the right way to live?”
Specifically, he pointed us to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor of Rome for nearly 20 years beginning in year 161 of the Common Era — overseeing an unprecedented period of social justice and peace — but ironically spent most of that time camped by the frozen Danube River defending the frontier against Germanic tribes.
If you’ve ever seen the beginning of the wonderful film “Gladiator,” the old king played by Richard Harris is a splendid rendering of Marcus Aurelius, whose noble empire was destroyed from within by the corruption of his own children and the emperors who followed them to the throne. The meditations Marcus wrote alone at night in his tent — missing family, despairing over the death of his men and ravages of war — were probably never meant to be made public. They were simply one man’s reflections on his lonely place in the universe.
I took the Meditations along with me on my first spring bike ride out to the country that April, stopped somewhere on a country bridge and read for a solid hour, underlining bits and pieces that struck me as amazingly relevant to a weary student nearing term’s end.
Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it. Let the rest of your days be spent as one who has wholeheartedly committed his all to the gods, and thence is no man’s master or slave.
A few days later, after nine holes with my buddies over in Ayden, I whipped out my little book and read a few more passages while I downed a chili dog between nines.
“What the hell is that book about?” asked my friend Kent — a cheerful modern-day barbarian who would soon drop out of school and start a landscaping business.
“I can’t tell you exactly,” I said honestly. “I think it’s about life, death. Nothing much. Just how to live your life, that sort of thing.”
“Does it mention anything about golf?”
“Not directly. Though the author does say loss is nothing but change, and change is the way of the universe. Love rather than fear all.”
“Sounds like a long-haired hippie.”
“More like a long-haired enlightened warrior.”
I sat in the Croatan student lounge trying to make sense of a poor mark in advanced English comp I simply did not deserve. The unfairness was insufferable. Everything that happens to you is as normal and expected as the spring rose or the summer fruit. This is true of sickness, death, slander, intrigue and all other things that delight or trouble the foolish minds of men.
Instead of going abroad to school as planned that summer, I returned home to work as a summer intern at my hometown newspaper in Greensboro. Truthfully, I was bitterly disappointed by this unfair turn of events.
Adapt yourself to the life you have been given; and truly love the people with whom destiny has surrounded you.
That summer internship was a blast. I made one of the best friends of my life, and fell in love with writing. Looking back, it changed my life. Two years later, I was contemplating graduate school — maybe even marriage — when a girl I loved suddenly died. I couldn’t imagine the future without her and turned to “The Philosopher King.”
Don’t disturb yourself by ruminating on your entire life; don’t dwell on the many troubles that may happen to you. On each occasion ask yourself, ‘What is there in this that is unendurable or unbearable?’ For you’ll eventually be ashamed to admit it can all be endured. Then remember — the past and future can’t hurt you — only the present can. And this can be reduced to very little.
Looking back, it’s funny to realize how much the old emperor’s private meditations meant to my developing life, and how dog-eared copies went along wherever I ventured over the next 30 years. Over the years, I must have given 20 copies away as gifts to friends I thought could benefit from his simple spiritual wisdom.
Not long ago, a host on a radio show interviewing me about a new book project asked if I could name my favorite professors back in college. I could honestly think of only two whose influence I feel to this day. One was my English adviser, a lovely man named Irwin Hester, who urged me to seriously consider a writing career.We’ve stayed in touch over the decades.
The other was dapper Luis Acevez, who showed me the beauties of Greek and Roman life and introduced me to “The Philosopher King.”
Not long ago, I gave a copies of the Meditations to both my children. One is preparing to graduate from college in Vermont, the other will follow from Elon about this time next year. There’s much I want to tell them, of course, as they embark on a wider trek through this changeable world.
I’d like to tell them there will be good days and bad, tragedy and sudden joy, ups and downs aplenty, unexpected trials and triumphs, slights and unexpected praise, the need to forgive and be forgiven, thoughts of giving up, sudden unforeseen breakthroughs, moments of pure grace, setbacks and epiphanies.
I would like to tell them to look up at the stars the way Marcus Aurelius did camped by the frozen river on the Roman frontier. Gaze in wonder at the ever-circling stars, as if you were floating among them; and consider the alteration of the elements, constantly changing one into another. Thinking such thoughts you wash away the dust of life on earth.
In coming weeks, the spring air will be full of sage advice to graduating seniors on these matters, though I’m still convinced the voice I heard one flowering April 40 years ago says it simply and best.
Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good; ever dig, and it will ever flow.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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