Prayer, According to Marcus Aurelius

Peace, one and all…

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‘The gods are either powerless or poweful.  If they are powerless, why do you pray?  But if they are powerful, why not rather pray for the gift of not fearing any of these things, or of not desiring any of them, or of not feeling grief for any of them, rather than that any one of them should be absent or present?  For surely, if the gods can co-operate with humans, they can co-operate to these ends.  But perhaps you will say: ‘The gods put these things in my power’.  Then is it not better to use what is in your power with a free spirit than to be concerned with what is not in your power in a spirit of slavery and abjection?  And who said to you that the gods did not co-operate with us, even in relation to things in our power?

Begin at least to pray about these things and you will see.  This man prays: ‘How may I sleep with that woman?’  You should pray: ‘How may I not desire to sleep with that woman?’ Another prays: ‘How may I not lose my child?’  You should pray: ‘How may I not be afraid of losing him?’  Turn your prayers round in this way and observe what happens’
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)

Circles.  Life always seems to move in circles.  Thus, I periodically return to subjects and issues (and resources) from previous times.  I pulled my copy of Mary Beard’s excellent Religions of Rome off the shelf during the holidays.  It’s a really interesting account of religion in the Roman empire.  The main point that struck me was the diversity of religious practice at the time.

I also came across the quotation above from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (the old man in the Gladiator film)!  For those unfamiliar with Marcus Aurelius, he was an emperor of Rome from 161-180CE.  Although a philosopher by nature, and a Stoic in particular it seems, his time as emperor were marked by several major wars (with Parthia and northern tribes).  Indeed, in many senses, these wars presaged the ensuing wars of the third century crisis.  His Meditations are full of references to duty and justice, a hallmark of Stoic thought.  Despite that, I have always found them to be warmly human.

I used to read his Meditations fairly often, though I’ve not done so for years.  Thus, when I read this quote recently I was struck by how much they spoke to me now, beyond the obvious theological differences.  At any rate, I enjoyed this passage, as it seemed to saying that you should pray for the right reasons and for the right things.  These are important lessons for us all to learn.

And praise be to God, who maketh it so… 

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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2 thoughts on “Prayer, According to Marcus Aurelius

  1. SubhanAllah.
    One of the problems with the Ummah today is its inability (sometimes) to think, look, and feel ‘outside of the box.’ Wisdom can be found lurking in the oddest corners; I would not normally think to seek enlightenment from a Roman Caesar.
    Thank you for sharing this.

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