On my desk sits a small marble bust of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. It was carved in 1840, twenty years before Matthew Arnold’s famous essay about the philosopher king, but a thousand and a half years after the great man walked on earth.
Marcus and the other stoics would say that these years matter very little in the grand scope of time. That between then and now, people have done the same thing they’ve always done: lived, died, slept, cheated, hated, loved, excelled, failed and on and on.
I suppose that’s why people have these busts—to remind themselves of history, of the people they admire and want to use as models for life — or even as reminders of who not to be. The wealthy Greeks and Roman estates were filled with the statues of the men (and gods) they revered. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson had a terracotta bust of his rival, Alexander Hamilton. George Washington had a bust of Shakespeare at Mount Vernon. In the Victorian era, little busts like the one I have were found in people’s homes or at their offices … (Read more)