Sometimes it's best to look to first sources. Other times someone has gathered up all those sources and put them together in a way that can save you a great deal of time. If you were interested in reading Epictetus, I would probably tell you to pick up The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of his works, as it does as good a job of any in really dealing with the gist of his work. No one jumps right into a marathon. If you were to say to me, "Hey Cam, everything sucks, I want to go occupy some street somewhere in the cold, driving rain," I'd have to reply, "Don't waste your time and get sick and risk being convinced that dreadlocks are a good idea, just read some Marcus Aurelius."
Oh yeah, the guy from Gladiator!
Being the most powerful person in the known world isn't something that I'd really wish upon anyone. This particular emperor didn't have the wild parties, delicate cuisines, and pleasures of the flesh that we normally think of when we wish we were the king. He spent the last thirteen years of his life in cold, muddy, remote sections of the Roman Empire fighting off cold, muddy, desperate men who wanted the land and privileges and wealth that could be had by killing Marcus and helping themselves to what lay beyond. He kept, as I wished i had the discipline to keep, a journal, which a thousand years later was published as a book, The Meditations. (caution: link contains difficult ideas expressed in even more difficult old school English)
I'm going to take a wild guess, from reading The Meditations, that Marcus Augustus needed every bit of the learning and training that he could get to be able to put up with such a life. None of us, insofar as I know, were intended to be Emperors, and just as many of us have spent a decade of our life slogging through untamed wilderness in a constant struggle to hold back hordes of people bent on destroying everything that we hold dear. None of us lives a comparative life though, we live our own life, each with our own sets of difficulties. And while life is generally good for us, perhaps better for the vast majority of us than it has ever been in the course of human events, our times hold their own particular perils.
While we're physically safe, no Germanic tribesmen are trying to overrun our fortifications like they were with Marcus, we've spent the past fifty years deconstructing our societies, throwing out old traditions and beliefs that, while restrictive and unfair in a wide number of ways, provided a structure to our lives and the world around us. There's no way that we can go back to them, as we will most likely never go back to systems which restrain our actions, and we're left with the question of how to deal with a world that largely doesn't need us, and in societies that largely ignore us.
In the next post, I'll look at some selections from Marcus Aurelius, and hopefully see how those might be used to help us with the confusing tangle of our modern world.