"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Aura Around Marcus Aurelius

An emperor, a general, a philosopher; someone who has been described as “modest, unselfish, high-minded, and with the highest sense of duty.”1 Not many people fit this description. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius may be the only one. Born in A.D. 121, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was adopted by Emperor Antoninus so that he could succeed him as ruler of the Roman Empire. He was called one of “the good emperors.” The reason for this epithet can be seen in his philosophical memoir, Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations were written, in a way, for himself. He addresses himself and gives himself encouragement and advice. The Meditations are “the private thoughts of a man communing with his own soul.”2 These private thoughts, however, are far from the sappy or sentimental ramblings of a diary. They are instead filled with calm reflections on man's place in the universe and how to live a virtuous, serene life. In consequence, the Meditations would appeal to any civic-minded Roman.

The document would also appeal to any Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is one of the most famous and oft quoted Stoic philosophers. The Meditations are a philosophical exploration of the principles of Stoicism. The topics covered are varied and are not really organized in any particular order. Some general categories covered are: living in harmony with nature, reason, duty, morality, and patience. For a Stoic, everything in nature is interconnected so it is important to live in harmony with it. Nature for Marcus Aurelius has a larger meaning than just physical things, it includes: “one universe made up of all things, one god who pervades all things, one substance, one law, one reason common to all intelligent beings, and one truth.”3

This interconnected order is the sum total of the universe for a Stoic. For them, and for Marcus Aurelius, the universe operates smoothly like a vast machine. All things go as planned. There are no accidents. “Everything which happens has been apportioned and spun out to you.”4 Because they believe reason is universal in humans and that there is “one law” and “one truth,” Stoics believe in certain norms of behavior from humans. While evil, too, has been fated to exist, the best way to live is according to “reason and Justice”5 Reason makes it clear what a person should, and should not, do.

The emphasis on moral laws was characteristic of Stoics in the Roman Empire. Marcus Aurelius places the foundation of a moral law on reason. This “natural law” is common to all people because—as Marcus Aurelius explains it--“If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, because of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also.”6 This “common law” was important for a Roman because they had a high regard for law and order in society. People are social beings but when they live together they need some form of governance. If universal laws could be arrived at then all people in the world could live together in peace. Under a common law, “we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, the world is in a manner a state. For of what other common political community will any one say that the whole human race are members?”7 The Roman Empire that spanned much of the known world in the time of Marcus Aurelius was the outgrowth of this philosophy put into practice.

Within Roman society--with its firm insistence on law and order--was the complementary emphasis on duty. Marcus Aurelius admonishes to, “every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity.”8 He goes on to say that “if you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you... if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”9 In fact, this quote embodies the core of Stoicism; the idea that if a person does his or her duty, nothing should disturb or cause unhappiness.

Marcus Aurelius would have much to say about the hectic American lifestyle if he were alive today. Living a simple life of duty is his ideal. The easiest way to achieve tranquility is to keep a free schedule10 “For the greater part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly, on every occasion a man should ask himself, is this one of the unnecessary things?”11

Although Marcus Aurelius was a hardened soldier inured to brutality and also known for persecuting Christians, this aspect of his life is not shown in the Meditations. For a pagan without divine revelation, he has a sharp perception of reality. From reading his Meditations alone it is very easy to see why he was called a “good emperor.” The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are filled with commonsense advice. His commonsense came from exercising his reason. With a right reason, he believed, would come happiness and the ability to cope with anything life threw in his way. He gives this challenge: “have you reason? I have.--Why then not use it?12

1. Donald S. Gochberg. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 511

2. Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. Ed Donald S. Gochberg. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 510

3. Ibid. 511

4. Ibid. 516

5. Ibid. 516

6. Ibid. 512

7. Ibid. 512

8. Ibid. 513

9. Ibid. 514

10. Ibid. 515

11. Ibid. 515

12. Ibid. 513

1 comment:

David Haddon said...

"Why not use it?" indeed! One reason, the passions of members of a fallen race