Recently I've been reading my long-neglected copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. For those of you who are not familiar, Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor between AD 161 - 180. He was the last in the series of 'The Five Good Emperors' - Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pious and himself. This time (96-180) is often considered the height of the Roman Empire, where the borders reached their fullest extent, the walls were built and the citizens within enjoyed relatively long years of peace and good governance.
Marcus fitted the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king. Invested with supreme power he was also a thoughtful and mediative man. He wrote Meditations whilst on the campaign trail fighting the Germanic tribes as a stoic guide to life and as a personal diary to himself. Stripped down, his philosophy was that life is essentially inconsequential, but what determines a worthwhile life is acting rationally and for good and not to be emotional about temporary highs or lows for they are as nothing in the broad sweep of history.
The above quotation - Whatever happens, happens rightly* - piqued my interest. It summarises in just four words, a whole philosophy and is thus a very powerful sentence. It appears on the surface to embrace a form of karma; that we are unwitting actors within a cosmic Fate of which we have no control but I think it goes a little deeper than this.
One has to understand where Marcus was coming from in order to do this full justice. I think the following quotation helps clarify a little more:-
Many grains of incense fall on the same altar: one sooner, another later - it makes no difference.**
Like the wisdom of Solomon I'm so fond of in Ecclesiastes, Marcus details the outward futility of man's actions. In this example, incense falling on the altar being a metaphor for successive waves of human generations, Marcus points out the folly of human vanities. The short term seeking of pleasures, accolades, profit, will be all be forgotten in the grand scheme of things.
A gloomy message, yes? And yet no - a realistic message, for Marcus discerns patterns and repetitions in human drama. Let's look at another quote to demonstrate:-
Reflect often how all the life of today is a repetition of the past; observe that it also presages what is to come. Review the many complete dramas and their settings, all so similar, which you have known in your own experience, or from bygone history... The performance is always the same; it is only the actors who change. ***
Anyone who has lived a few years can see the truth in the above and smile in recognition. This is even more emphatic for students of history. In politics, war, economics, human relations, there is, as I quoted previously in different article, 'nothing new under the sun'.
So far so rational. But what about the 'happens rightly' part? Doesn't this suggest some moral agency in what happens in life? Some 'good' pre-determined outcome? I would be equivocal about this. I suspect Marcus is using the word 'rightly' in a mechanicalistic manner, that universal laws of nature and humanity will always reassert themselves - like some cosmic regression towards the mean. For example, a forest may be cleared but, left to itself, it will grow again.
However, despite this, Marcus also believes in being rational, humane and good. In fact he believes that this is the only point of life; to live a 'good' life. And whilst one can only control oneself, the more good in the world, the better the outcomes and the higher the level of, temporary, human happiness. Nothing is perfect, everything has to re-won, the lessons of history always have to relearnt but, given a reasonable and sympathetic character, then things can be made better. And, that is what is important in life.
My quibble - if I have one - is that whilst I agree with much of Marcus' gloomy observation about each generation having to relearn the lessons of the past, is that I have a stubborn belief in the Enlightenment's idea of progress. Although each generation does have to relearn history and human relations, it does so not from some ground zero each day but 'standing on the shoulders of giants'.
Knowledge, inventions, the rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech, transparency, capitalism, food production, cheap transport, fast communications, the universalisation of knowledge via the internet, better health, drugs, sanitation; these are things that are spreading at the fastest rate ever in human history. We - pace Marcus - living only in the present - tend to ignore these advances but they are there and they are real. ****
So, what are we left with as base material concerns are stealthily obliterated? How can the sentient person avoid spiritual degradation, a creeping ennui? By doing good. Personal kindnesses. Rationality. Reason. Thoughtfulness. Curiosity.
The real battle, as suggested by Marcus Aurelius and other ancients texts, is, and always has been, individual and internal. And this is a fight that has to be won every day.
Firstly, avoid all actions that are haphazard or purposeless; and secondly, let every action aim solely at the common good. *****
Normal service resumed in the next article where I discuss the latest series of The Voice.
* Meditations - Book IV, 10
** Meditations - Book iV, 15
*** Meditations - Book X, 27
**** One of the problems with a 24 hour media and - dare I say it - ignorant journalists with no understanding of history - is that the sensational, the temporary, the critical always wins the battle for attention against the long term, the underlying trend, the comparative. We are, as a world, empirically, more free, richer, healthier, better fed than EVER before. That is not to say that there aren't problems nor that there aren't temporary set-backs but, if you compare the world with 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, let alone 500, there is no comparison that we are better off in so many ways. Whether we are happier or more spiritually fulfilled is a completely separate issue, however.
***** Meditations Book XII, 20