Stephen McGinty: Romans to the rescue

THE wisdom of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his masterpiece Meditations is as effective in dealing with the problems of today as it was 1,800 years ago, writes Stephen McGinty

Richard Harris, left, gives Russell Crowe some stoic advice in the film Gladiator. Picture: Kobal
Richard Harris, left, gives Russell Crowe some stoic advice in the film Gladiator. Picture: Kobal

A decade ago, I found myself sharing a cheese board in a small flat in Chelsea with a man who was penniless, £200,000 in debt and who had recently decided to starve himself to death until his life was saved by Marcus Aurelius. The Roman emperor may have been dead himself for more than 1,800 years, but that hadn’t stopped him helping many people to better shoulder the weight of the world, or at least, their personal portion.

Jeremy Scott, an advertising executive who once sprinkled cocaine on the canapes at Edward Heath’s pre-election strategy meetings and who, as a child, fished for salmon with hand grenades in the rivers of Arisaig, had taken a wrong turn. He had gone from riches to rags.

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In the tiny rented apartment just off the King’s Road we talked about his life, his childhood summers on the rugged west coast of Scotland and his father, J M Scott, an Arctic explorer who had spent the Second World War as chief commando instructor for the Special Operations Executive.

After a private education at Stowe, Jeremy went into the advertising industry working with James Garrett & Partners, where Richard Lester shot commercials before going on to film The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.

As one of London’s Don Drapers, Scott rose up the ranks, accruing a chauffeur-driven Aston Martin and a wife he met while she was posing for an advert for Players Monica Cigars, shot by Terence Donovan. The marriage never lasted and after launching the company’s office in New York, where Coca Cola asked him about the possibility of towing an iceberg to Manhattan for an ad campaign, he grew tired of the “Mad Men” and retired to the south of France. He bought two old mills and planned to renovate and sell them on, an idea inspired by his friend Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence.

Unfortunately, he became trapped by the recession of the early 1990s; unable to sell the mills, they were repossessed. By 1998 Scott had debts of £200,000 and after buying 68p worth of cheese to accompany a bottle of wine, the two pence change was the sum total of his wealth.

When a friend lent him a dog-eared copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation, he was exhilarated by the wisdom rolling down through 18 centuries and the comfort that came with accepting that his life had been, as he put it: “idiotic, wasteful and misspent”. The two lines he remembers best were: “Submit to providence. You have no choice, so do it with dignity,” and “The things that affect us stand outside. Change your attitude and then, as a ship entering harbour, you shall find calm.”

I thought of Jeremy Scott this week while reading about the popularity of Marcus Aurelius among the residents of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, who are adopting his maxims after being introduced to them by Ryan Holiday, a 26-year-old marketing executive and author of The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage. Inspired by Robert Greene, who turned Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince into the international bestseller The 48 Laws of Power, Holiday has repackaged the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosophers. Back in 2002 Jeremy Scott tried a similar venture by editing down Aurelius’s Meditations and, personally speaking, I wish Scott had enjoyed half of the success that Holiday is currently accruing, especially after reading an interview with Holiday in which he dismisses those who are wary of taking life lessons from a 26-year-old by saying of them: “How have you done so few things and you’re 40? That’s sort of what I wonder. I wonder what people do all day.”

This misses the point: Marcus Aurelius won’t make you a winner, he’s comfort for when you lose, which we all will. I’ve always had a soft spot for the hard-headedness of stoic philosophy, for it is indeed “self help” on a papyrus scroll or “chicken soup for the soul” served up in a Greco-Roman urn.

I’ve got two battered Penguin editions of Mediations, as well as a fancy Folio Society hardback. I’ve a copy of Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic and a old volume of Epictetus. I only wish possession and a reserved spot on my bookshelf were the constituent ingredients of wisdom. Sadly, like all those thousands of fans who include Bill Clinton, who reads Meditations once a year, and Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister of China who said he has read the book at least 100 times, there is a vast gulf between reading, understanding and actually applying the ideas to one’s life.

Yet I take comfort in the fact that even those whose words we read, were, at times, equally unsuccessful at putting their own points into practice. Seneca (3 BC-AD 65) once booked into an apartment above a bath house to prove that one should rise above noisy distractions but was soon driven out by the din. His letters about the value of living simply may begin to smart when you learn that he was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, and that, according to the ancient historian Dio Cassius, he triggered the revolt by the Iceni under Boudica by forcing the Roman governor of Britain to adopt harsh tax-raising practices after Seneca called in a loan of ten million denarii. Yet Seneca accepted his fate with courage when, accused of plotting against Nero, he had no choice but to slip into a warm bath then slit his wrists.

Three generations later, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) was unable to practise his principles in peace as he spent most of his reign hacking through Germanic tribes. Yet his noble reputation is reflected by his representation by Hollywood, with Alec Guinness playing him in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Richard Harris in Gladiator.

The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius is distilled by his biographer Frank McLynn as: “Death is an aspect of life, so live the latter as if the former is imminent; the intellect should always prevail over the emotions; do what is serious, not frivolous; do what is right, not popular; do what you do for others first and yourself second; be self-reliant but tolerable, flexible and prepared to change your view.”

The Stoics believed in living in harmony with nature, and this frequently meant accepting life as it is, not as one would wish it to be.

Happiness is derived not from achievements but acting and thinking correctly and accepting that the outcome, as it involves other people over whom we have no control, is unlikely to be what we want.

Yet Aurelius and one of his early tutors, Epictetus, (whose teachings make an interesting appearance in Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man In Full) believed that great peace will come from changing one’s perceptions.

Meditations is a slim volume, barely 150 pages, comprised of Aurelius’s jottings to himself, but to read it is to find yourself in the company of a wise uncle who has an answer to everything, even if it’s not what you may at first want to hear. One of my favourites is his maxim against rolling over after the alarm has gone off, a practice unchanged in millennia.

“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought ‘I am rising for the work of man’. Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm?”

While the toughest to put into practice is perhaps the most beneficial: “If you are distressed by anything, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

There is no Hollywood ending for Jeremy Scott, because in life, there never is, but the last I heard from him he had reinvented himself as a novelist, written a fine book inspired by his father and was relatively content with his new ascetic life which he considered easier and happier with Marcus Aurelius still close to hand.

And it is this ancient philosopher who should have the last word: “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”