William Penn vs. Marcus Aurelius

In my ongoing quest to read the Harvard Classics and Great Books of the Western World, I recently read two short works that could very well comprise a planned pair across languages, cultures, and centuries. Both William Penn, British entrepreneur of the 17th century, and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century, have left didactic manuals of living well, each taking the form of a series of loosely connected maxims. Penn authored Some Fruits of Solitude; Aurelius his immortal Meditations.

Both manuals are typically pious, practical, and assert our ability to master the world around us in some way. However, where Penn relates his life’s wisdom to us in statements of morality so simple that they were probably already clichés in his day (“Be good and do nice things”-style advice), Aurelius gives us a dynamic, challenging web of rules that would transform life into a noble adventure. He may not have invented Stoicism, but he certainly gave history its most memorable phrasing.

Consider these four representative quotes from the first book of Penn’s Fruits of Solitude, which I noted because they were actually among the most useful and memorable lines:

165. There are some Men like Dictionaries; to be lookt into upon occasions, but have no Connection, and are little entertaining.

184. It were endless to dispute upon everything that is disputable.

256. Unless Virtue guide us, our Choice must be wrong.

489. The truest end of Life, is, to know the Life that never ends.

Good, sure, but hardly the stuff of legend. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, frequently discourses in his book, in digestable snippets, on the cosmic nature of our physical connection to the universe (and the peace of mind that such realization can engender as it detaches us from the stresses of magnifying the present), as well as sharing friendly little adages about what to do when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out of bed:  Continue reading