I am so sorry that we have had to start term with such an announcement as was made by the Prime Minister last night. It is a huge blow for a lot of people. It seems likely that we will be online for several weeks now. I suspect that you are full of questions and would love some answers, but the truth is that I (and my colleagues) know nothing more than you do, having listened to the very same words ourselves. It will take us a little time to work through the ramifications of this decision, so please do bear with us for a while. In particular, boys in exam years will be keen to know what is happening. I know that Mr Baldock is also emailing you, but again we have no more information than you do and will be as anxious as you are to hear further Government announcements.
It seems rather apt, therefore, that for today’s assembly I had prepared something on coping with uncertainty. This is not going to be an easy time for many people, so I do encourage you to listen to this; and maybe to act on it. If you decide against that, then at the very least I encourage you to make the most of the weeks ahead. Do your work diligently, yes of course, but also read a book, learn a skill, try a language, discover something new, find an imaginative way to help others, start a project or a business, perhaps. Don’t overcommit, but do commit to something. Make the most of a difficult situation, and I hope we might all be back together again in the not too distant future.
So today’s assembly deals with ways you can cope with uncertainty. I hope it sheds a light on how I cope with it myself, and that maybe one or two of you find it useful to you, too, either now or at some stage in your lives. So here goes…
“Tell me again, Maximus. Why are we here?” I suspect that many of you know what film that quote is from. It is from very close to the beginning of Gladiator, just after Maximus has led his troops to a bloody victory over Germanic tribes near the northern boundaries of the Roman Empire on the River Danube. Afterwards, he is called into the Emperor’s tent and he is asked “Tell me again, Maximus. Why are we here?”
When I got home at the end of last term, like many of you, I suspect, I was pretty tired and so, as I do occasionally, I turned to the man who uttered those words; because whilst he was on military campaign on the Danube 1850 years ago, late in his own life, this remarkable philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was also writing daily meditations to himself, not so that they would be published, but to encourage himself to better things, to stay moral and humble, to remind himself why he was there. Fortunately for us, those meditations outlived him and we can still read them today. Not only that, but they are going through a most eye-catching revival. In 2012, 16,000 copies of Marcus Aurelius’ work were sold; by 2019, that annual figure had grown to over 100,000 copies. And then, in the first month of lockdown last March, sales grew again, this time by a whopping 356%. But why?
Just reading a page of his text reminds you exactly why; it is the most amazing collection imaginable of basic life truths and is at the same time remarkably calming in periods of trouble. I opened his book at the very start of the pages he wrote in Carnuntum on the River Danube, depicted perhaps in that very scene in Gladiator writing at his scroll as Maximus walks into his tent. It starts like this:
“We must take into our reckoning not only that life is expended day by day and the remaining balance diminishes, but also this further consideration: if we live longer, there is no guarantee that our mind will likewise retain that power to comprehend and study the world…”
Well, it does not come much more direct than that – and indeed directness is one of Marcus Aurelius’ key principles. No point in beating about the bush, because, as he says here, life is finite and it gets shorter every day. We had best make the most of it whilst we are here!
So what does making the most of it mean? Well, you have heard me say some of it many times. Firstly, it means controlling the controllable. Not long before Marcus Aurelius set off on campaign to the Danube, a disease called smallpox had made its way across the Eastern reaches of the empire to reach Rome; it turned into a pandemic, killing millions of people – some scholars say up to 25 million. Marcus’ life had seen all sorts of trials, not least that of constant war and losing 8 of his 13 children, but living through a pandemic no doubt had something to do with the 356% rise in book sales almost 2000 years later! However, Marcus, like all Stoic philosophers, had grown used to the fact that you cannot control most things, but you can control the way you think about them. So, to quote him, rather than saying “it is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ you should say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.” Living in accordance with nature – i.e. learning to cope with what life throws at you – was absolutely at the core of Stoic philosophy; and you can see from that one quote that control of your mind was more important to him than anything else. It is only through the training of your mind that you can conquer adversity. This leads to the second passage I read of his from Carnuntum, which started like this:
“If you discover in human life something better than justice, truth, self-control, courage – in short, something better than self-sufficiency of your own mind which keeps you acting in accordance with true reason and accepts your inheritance of fate in all outside your choice – if, as I say, you can see something better than this, then turn to it with all your heart.”
The inference, of course, is that these four qualities reign above all others: justice, truth, self-control and courage. And notice how close they are to our own four core values! And indeed to outline how important truth was to him (you can call it integrity, in our own values), in his only direct mention of the pandemic, he claims that “corruption of the mind is a far graver pestilence than any comparable disturbance and alteration in the air that surrounds us; for the one is a plague to living creatures as mere animals, and the other to human beings in their nature as human beings.” In other words, we cannot do much about the inevitability of life and death; but we can do an awful lot about how we live life.
So, “tell me again, Maximus; why are we here?” Maximus replied: “for the glory of Rome, sire”; Marcus would have been thinking: to live in a just, true and productive way, in accordance with the natural flow of life.
Please do get a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ book; I genuinely believe that his wisdom is not only worthwhile during today’s pandemic, but has the power to nourish you forever.
I wish you all the very best for the term ahead.