The Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius was used to being surrounded by beautiful things. But all too often, the affairs of the Empire would take him away from Rome, to defend the borders against the Goths, the Parthians, or the Persians. For the greater part of his life, Marcus was forced to endure the rigors of the battlefield, where beauty was rare and brutality the order of the day.
To maintain his composure through these years of hardship and toil, Marcus sought to transform his perception of the objects he desired. Rather than think of beautiful things – clothes, jewelry, food, art and architecture – in the manner that they were commonly perceived, he sought to see them as simple material objects and evaluate them accordingly.
In his notebook, Marcus presented this as a simple technique:
‘When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most’ (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).