A Realistic Emperor


Marcus Aurelius, tr. Hard, intro. Gill
Wordsworth Classics, 1997

Anyone who tries to live his life according to principle will normally be regarded as a prig. Marcus Aurelius even predicted what some of us would think of him:

Suppose that he [the deceased] is serious-minded and wise, there is sure to be someone there at the last [at the funeral] who will say of him , “What a relief to be finally freed from this schoolmaster; not that he was ever harsh with us, but I could sense that he was silently condemning us.” (10.36):

In Marcus’ case, there’s also the imperial factor: somehow his advice about facing adversity rings false when you realize that during the time when he was writing his book, he was the Emperor (or heir-apparent) of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

On the other hand, his qualifications for giving advice about resisting temptation are excellent, and for an Emperor (and certainly by contrast to such imperial predecessors as Nero and Tiberius) he lived a wonderfully temperate and benevolent life.

He was unimpressed by the Emperor biz:

Take care that you are not turned into a Caesar, that you are not stained with the purple; for such things do come about. (6.30)

Go on, then, talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius. If they saw what the universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them. (8.3)

Marcus counts as a Stoic, but he also had Epicurean tendencies and, most surprisingly, an unmistakable Cynic streak. With him cynicism didn’t manifest itself in antinomianism, as it does in our day, but in an ascetic detachment from, or even a contempt for, such conventional goals of life as power, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and comfort. (Though again, one doubts that he had any idea what it would be like to be destitute and genuinely powerless.)

All that is highly prized in life is hollow, putrid, and trivial; puppies snapping at one another, little children bickering, and laughing, and then all at once in tears. (5.33)

His cynicism even led him in the paranoid kamikaze direction

Let people see, let them study, a true man who lives according to nature. If they cannot bear with him, let them kill him! For it were better to die than to live such lives as theirs. (10.15):

The Meditations are addressed to “you” — to Marcus himself, or to the generic reader (us). It’s mostly ethical reminders, exhortations and advice. Often enough, it seems that Marcus was refreshing himself on the best way to deal with a particular kind of problem he had just encountered — e.g., “annoying people”. Most of the time, he seems to be reaching for a new statement of one of his main ideas. The book has no apparent overall plan, though certain themes cluster in certain sections.

His book has been admired for its naturalism. He speaks of the gods, but these are distant and impersonal (the stars) and require only the conventional sacrifices. He also speaks of a singular God, but this seems only to be the single governing principle of the universe, which is shared by men as the governing principle of their own lives. Revere the highest power in the universe, the power that makes use of all things and presides over all. And likewise, revere the highest power in yourself: this power is of one kind with the other. (5.21)

You honor your governing faculty alone and what is divine in you. (12.1)

One animal soul is distributed amongst irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided amongst rational creatures. (9.8)

He regards all outcomes as inevitable, and toys with the Epicurean idea that events are entirely the result of chance and mere physical causes. He teaches us to uncomplainingly accept constant change and the inevitable perishing of everything, including ourselves, without an afterlife. And since everything is inevitable, and eitherthe result of a benevolent design or of pure chance, it is unreasonable and unnatural to complain about anything.

Either a hotchpotch and the entangling of atoms and their dispersal, or unity, order, and providence. (6.10)

Whatever happens to you was preordained from time everlasting, and from eternity the web of causations was weaving together your existence and this that befalls you. (10.5)

Perhaps a man who is worthy of the name should put aside this question of how long he should live, and not cling to life, believing what old wives say, that “no one can escape his destiny”, and turn his attention to this instead, to how he can live the best life possible in the time that is granted to him. (7.46)

Universal nature set out to create a universe; and now it is either the case that all that comes to be does so as a necessary consequence of that, or else even the most important things, to which the governing faculty directs its own efforts, lie outside the rule of reason. Remember this, and you will face every trouble with a calmer mind. (7.75)

However, to the Epicurean “atoms and the void” he prefers the Stoic idea that everything is governed by divine providence — an established order which tends inevitably toward the good. In this he deviates from naturalism in the direction of a belief in design and preordained outcomes, and his supposed determinism thus somewhat resembles religious fatalism. The visible and efficacious gods he refers to are the stars, leading one also to suspect that he was at least tempted by the claims of astrology.

To those who ask, ‘Where have you seen the gods, or what evidence do you have of their existence, that you worship them so devoutly? I reply that they are in fact visible to our eyes, ….. from what I experience of their power at every moment of my life, I ascertain that they exist and pay them due reverence. (12.28; n. pp. 151, 153)

Everything, such as a horse, say, or a vine, has come into being for a purpose; and why should you wonder at that? The Sun himself would say “I was born to perform a function”, and so would the rest of the gods. (8.19)

Constantly think of the universe as a single living being, comprised of a single substance and a single soul. (4.40)

Now there is a single harmony which embraces all things. (5.8)

All things are interwoven, and the bond that unites them is sacred, and hardly anything is alien to any other. (7.9)

Nothing happens to anyone that he is not fitted by nature to bear.(5.18: compare I Corinthians, 10:13).

There’s a fudge in his presentation of design, however. Design works to the good of the whole, and Marcus merely asserts that, of course, nothing that works to the good of the whole could be thought to harm a part. This amounts to the expectation of complete altruism from of the parts

Nothing which benefits the whole brings harm to the part. (10.6; also 6.45.)

What universal nature brings to each thing is to the benefit of that thing, and to its benefit at just the time that she brings it. (10.20)

His teaching about how to relate to one’s fellow man is mild, showing nothing of the famous Roman sternness. We should never react with anger, but (knowing that misbehavior, too, is part of the inevitable plan) should only ask ourselves how it was that the offender came to act the way that he did

You are angry at a man if he smells of stale sweat, or if he has bad breath? What good will it do you? He has such a mouth, and such armpits….(5.28)

Whenever someone wrongs you, ask yourself at once, “What conception of good and evil led him to commit such a wrong?” (7.26)

He goes beyond this to recommend that our attitude toward others be love, since we are all parts of the same whole. (It may be noted, however, that this love is a rather condescending, schoolmasterly one)

It is a special characteristic of man to love even those who stumble. And this love is realized as soon as the thought strikes you that these are your relations and do wrong through ignorance and against their will….. (7.22)

If you can, show them the error of their ways; but if you cannot, remember that kindness was granted to you for this. The gods themselves are kind to such people….. (9.11)

It is impossible to cut a branch from its neighbor unless you cut it from the tree as a whole; and likewise, a human being cut off from a single one of his fellows has dropped out of the community as a whole. (11.8):

The monism breaks down here. Others are to be understood as ruled by blind causes, whereas we are to reject anger, which is “against Nature”, and choose love. In fact, anger is the primary and possibly the only crime against Nature:

If the renunciation of anger against one’s fellow man is benevolent almost to the point of Buddhism, the proposed renunciation of anger against one’s fate and one’s lot in life is imperial and oppressive. In any case, just as others are loved primarily as parts of the great whole to which we also belong, rather than as individuals, our unquestioning acceptance of the great whole to which we belong requires us to submit willingly to whatever happens.

When our author speaks of those rebels and complainers who wrongly resist the order of nature, his ultimate argument comes from the ethics of demeanor: you should play an honorable role in a dignified way, and not behave ignobly. (This is one of a number of ways in which his philosophy resembles Confucianism)
An angry expression on one’s face is utterly contrary to nature. (7.24)

Consider every word and deed that accords with nature to be worthy of you…. (5.3)

In so far he is out of tune with universal nature, and gives rise to disorder by entering into conflict with the rational order of the universe. (9.1)

And whenever your governing faculty complains about anything that comes to pass, at that moment too it deserts its proper station. (11.20)

The soul of man does violence to itself when it becomes, so far as it can, an abscess and a sort of morbid outgrowth of the universe. For to set your mind against anything that comes to pass is to set yourself apart from Nature….. (2.16, also 4.29)

The monism paradox, which is said to be insoluble, raises its head again here, for Marcus realizes that even ignoble people or angry people are playing their part in the order of Nature, and that there is in fact nothing that can be “against Nature”. He does not go so far as the heretics of the fortunate fall, or the heretics who revered Judas, or the Buddhists who found even evil in the all-encompassing Buddha nature, but I would imagine that stoïciens maudits, who deliberately chose the inevitable ignoble roles for themselves, were to be found even then:But take care that you assume no role such as that mean and ridiculous verse in the play which Chrysippus mentions. (6.42; Chrysippus had said that funny lines in comedies, like vice in the universe, when seen from a providential standpoint, can play a beneficial function: n. p. 136).

When you are shocked by anyone’s shameless behavior, ask yourself at once “Is it then impossible that there should be no shameless people in the world?” It is quite impossible. So you should not demand the impossible : this person is one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. (9.42)

Look on anyone who is pained or discontented at anything that comes to pass as being like a little pig kicking and screaming at the sacrifice. (10.28)

What is the present content of the part of me which is commonly called the governing faculty? And whose soul do I have at present? That of an adolescent? That of a woman, of a tyrant, of a domestic animal, of a wild beast? (5.11)

One who flees from his master is a runaway slave; now the law is our master, and one who departs from it is therefore a runaway slave. (10.25)

If there was any doubt that the cosmology of The Meditations was politically and not scientifically grounded, and that Marcus speaks from the seat of power, the passages below (along with his passing remarks on the poor little pig and the runaway slave) should lay it to rest

The universe should be regarded as a kind of constitutional state. (4.3)

If that be so, the world is a kind of state. For in what other common constitution can we claim that the whole world participates? (4.4)

Marcus Aurelius was The Man if anyone ever was, and it’s easy enough to deconstruct him as a falsely-benign authoritarian patriarch — in fact, that’s more or less what I just did. On the other hand, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time studying such genuine brutes as Genghis Khan, and Marcus’s mildness is actually highly impressive. (I, for one, cannot be sure that I would restrain myself as effectively as he did if I had his power to put annoying people to death — and I could name names here.)

On the evidence of this text, it would also seem that the Roman Empire, at least during his reign, was much more civil and much less absolutist than we have thought. The main message, of course, remains the same: living your life deliberately is difficult, no matter who you are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s