From the vantage of the 21st century, Marcus Aurelius is one of the most appealing characters of Roman antiquity. Not only a Roman emperor, but a good one, who administered the affairs of state in the public interest and didn’t abuse his authority, but also a thoughtful man, a philosopher, whose private commonplace book, “To Myself”, remains in print today as Meditations, a classic work of Stoic philosophy. Meditations is a true classic, re-discovered periodically by those seeking wisdom in difficult times. It was beloved of figures as diverse as Matthew Arnold (who wrote “So spake the imperial sage, purest of men, Marcus Aurelius”), WEB DuBois, and Bill Clinton. To me, it’s a remarkable book, one that inspires and repels: and not serially, but simultaneously. The passages that seem most noble are, at the same time, the most inhuman.
For Marcus, the good life for human beings is one of dispassion. Perhaps the most widely quoted line from the Meditations is “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”; this sounds appealing to modern ears. Marcus sounds as if he is suggesting that life is about challenging and facing down difficulties, rather than simply seizing fleeting pleasures, and no doubt Marcus would agree; but that’s not what he’s trying to say in this passage, which is truncated. In the original text, he continues that living well is like wrestling “inasmuch as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.” That is, the danger that life poses us is disruption of our mental equilibrium. Certainly pain can do this, and vice, but so too can pleasure and virtue. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not,” he writes, “but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”
This insistence that pleasure and virtues are, in their own way, traps, distinguishes Marcus and the Stoics from other ancient schools of philosophy, like the Peripatetics or the Epicureans. The strongest argument Marcus has against those bodies of thought is that they admit that the good life requires certain external goods and circumstances. For Aristotle, the good life was lived in the city-state, and absent that form of social organization, human life can’t reach its full potential. Epicurus believed something similar, that the pleasant life required a well-governed society that minimized harms, for such was a prerequisite of the pleasant life. Marcus, living in a time when Rome warred against Persians and Germans, insists that the good life has no external needs: the power to live well lies within in everyone. “It is perfectly possible to be godlike, even though unrecognized as such. Always keep that in mind; and also remember that the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics and physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.” Such a life will be filled with pains and difficulties, but these are to be accepted, even welcomed. He writes: “So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to be bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune'”. In a similar vein, life will seduce with pleasures, but these too are snares. He reminds himself that “Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible.”
A human’s greatest fear, Marcus posits, is the fear of death. Again and again in the Meditations he offers advice for overcoming this fear, which is to keep one’s death in proper perspective. Anticipating Milton, he emphasizes that such fear is a product of the mind, and can be changed by the mind. “Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies with yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.” He suggests imagining one’s own funeral, and recognizing how, even among your friends, there will be people relieved to be free of you and the obligations you bring, which should make the fear of leaving them less. In fact, death is to be imagined at every opportunity: “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time you may be given to you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with Nature.”
There is wisdom here. Even more than Marcus, we 21st-century Canadians are prone to look for happiness as a thing out there, to be acquired through our latest acquisitions, and modern Stoics like Mr. Money Mustache or Juliet Schor remind us that this temptation will always be with us, and hard as it is to overcome it, doing so is imperative for anyone seeking a pleasant life. Marcus’ advice to cultivate patience and perspective about the difficulties and pains of life is also well taken; we’ve all known people who lacked such perspective, and seen how much unnecessary suffering they underwent. Marcus’ description of such a person, in the second person, is apt: to be such a person is to be a “stranger in your own homeland, bewildered by each day’s happenings as though by wonders unlooked for, and ever hanging upon this one or the next.”
But at the same time, Marcus’ insistence that we must detach from joy is too much to ask. The soldier may take pride in fulfilling duty; but there is more to life than duty. A human being is more than a robot, and finding delight in books, in family or friends, in food and stories and sex, seems to me to be also part of the good life. For all of his iron austerity, it seems to me that Marcus felt it too. The most poignant passage in the Mediations is this one, where Marcus seems to shudder at his own limits, and that of his way of life: “O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh? Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company? When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth? Will you never be fit for such fellowship with gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?”
I admire Marcus; but I do not follow him.