Aurelius, Marcus Entries



In a comment on my entry on Seneca, Cynthia asked to hear more about the physical realities of the Penguin Great Ideas books whose attractiveness I had written about so lustily. As well she should have! I can't believe I forgot to include some shallow gushing about how pretty these books are in person. So here it is, a fitting counter-balance to the gloom and doom of Marcus Aurelius: these books are SO PRETTY. Really, they're even prettier than I anticipated, largely because the covers are matte-finished and the art is pressed into them, so each slim volume has a super-satisfying, tactile element to it that's absolutely irresistible. In addition, they're light and thin, and both their height and width is smaller than an average paperback, which gives them that undeniable "smaller is more appealing" aesthetic. The print is just the right size and spacing: the text isn't cramped, but there's enough substance on each page that you feel you're sinking your teeth into something. Finally, I love the texture of the pages: just right for absorbing my underlining ink in a satisfying way, and they exude that delicious, new-book smell. All in all, I'm even more excited about these than I was when I first posted. Hooray!

And now, to the Romans. I'm glad I read Seneca before Marcus Aurelius, because they inform each other in interesting ways (props to the people at Penguin who curated this collection!).* Written about two hundred years after "On the Shortness of Life," Aurelius's Meditations still exists in a recognizable ethos of Roman stoicism, but one I found significantly more pessimistic and restrictive than its precursor. Whereas Seneca celebrates the act of retiring into philosophy, devoting time to educating oneself and developing one's mind and spiritual well-being, Marcus Aurelius claims that the only rational way to spend one's time is in a life devoted to civic service. Seneca seems more "contemporary" (by which I might just mean that I agree with more of his points) in his attempts to balance public and private life; Marcus Aurelius defines humans as "rational, social beings," and holds us up to a constant standard of rationality and sociability. Understandably, given that yardstick, he's pretty disgusted with the actual behavior he sees around him, but he sees the shortcomings of the populace as just more evidence that we shouldn't fear death, but wait calmly for our time to come. It's people, and not Nature, which is problematic, he argues: since death is part of Nature's plan, there can be nothing to fear.

I found a lot to disagree with in the Meditations; overall, this phase of Roman stoicism isn't a philosophy that really speaks to me. I don't believe, for example, in many of Marcus Aurelius's core precepts, such as that the universe is organized logically, and that every event happens for the best of the world as a whole:

Universal Nature's impulse was to create an orderly world. It follows, then, that everything now happening must follow a logical sequence; if it were not so, the prime purpose towards which the impulses of the World-Reason are directed would be an irrational one. Remembrance of this will help you to face many things more calmly.

I can see how such beliefs would help a person to face many things more calmly, but I just don't feel they describe for my experience of the twenty-first century. I'm reminded of a character in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (a book I hated, but this one passage rings true), who rejects her psychiatrist's claim that the patient's feelings about the threat of nuclear war are identical to those of a mythological Greek character dreamed up 3,000 years previous. Much in the Meditations struck me the same way: these may have seemed like plausible theories to an emperor in 170 AD, but I don't believe that nuclear warfare or the decimation of the earth's ecosystems is happening for any kind of abstract "best," or proceeding according to any overarching "logic." Marcus Aurelius counsels holding oneself to an uncompromisingly upright standard while more or less ignoring the misdeeds of one's neighbors. On one level, I this makes sense: he's essentially cautioning against becoming a busybody or a hypocrite; he's promoting tolerance. But what he doesn't acknowledge is the degree to which we are all profoundly interconnected: there are some actions on the part of others against which I feel morally obligated to fight. Marcus Aurelius's position that we all live and die alone, independent of one another, has been convincingly disproved as far as I'm concerned - nor would I want to live in a world where we are all such islands as he imagines.

Neither do I believe, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, that we ought to "Erase fancy; curb impulse; quench desire." Fancy, impulse and desire, along with pleasure (which he's equally down on) are sources of inspiration and motivation for great things. Sure, they can get out of hand; a person who ONLY thinks about his or her own pleasure is hardly a worthwhile member of society. But so much has been accomplished because of the pleasures of creativity, because of a visceral delight in music, or color, or the intricacies of electronic circuitry, or the mysteries of the human brain. Curiosity is not rational, nor is the urge toward personal expression. I believe humans are largely IRrational (although reason plays its part in our lives), and whether we like that or hate it, we're setting ourselves up for spectacular failure if we attempt to deny our less rational components. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius makes this argument about pleasure:

Repentance is remorse for the loss of some useful opportunity. Now, what is good is always helpful, and must be the concern of every good man; but an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. It follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful.

I mean seriously, what tosh. Who HASN'T repented of having let some opportunity for pleasure pass by? Good grief, I'm still kicking myself over having missed that Liz Phair concert in 1995! Every time an out-of-town friend is in for a short time and I can't see her, I regret it. When I used to work on Saturdays, there were a whole parade of local events that I regretted having to miss. All of this is not because I'm some kind of degenerate, but because consuming art and maintaining healthy relationships are "useful opportunities," and they're also pleasurable. I would even maintain that a large part of their usefulness comes from the pleasure they give. Come to think of it, it's odd that Marcus Aurelius so readily claims that humans are social beings whose only rational option is to devote ourselves in service to the State, and yet refuses to acknowledge our interconnectedness, and the ways in which we nourish and help one another on a more intimate level. Either that, or he's refusing to acknowledge any other type of pleasure than unrestrained bacchanalian orgies. Either way, I think he's full of it.

But despite all the axes I could grind with Marcus Aurelius, there was a lot that impressed me in the Meditations as well. He writes eloquently about change - how we persistently fear it, but how it is really at the bottom of all life: inescapable, and ultimately positive, since Nature obviously set up the world to include so much of it. I was impressed at his postulation of conservation of energy:

I consist of a formal element and a material. Neither of these can ever pass away into nothing, any more than either of them came into being from nothing. Consequently every part of me will one day be re-fashioned, by a process of transition, into some other portion of the universe; which in its turn will again be changed into yet another part, and so onward to infinity.

And, despite its pessimism, I'm utterly in love with this passage on the fleetingness of everything we tend to value in the world:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being in incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.

In fact, the flashes of breathtaking literary beauty were what saved the Meditations for me, even when I disagreed with most of its ideas. Sometimes these were no more than lines: "All things fade into the storied past," he claims at one point, and "the soul becomes dyed in the color of its thoughts." Such loveliness.

I disagreed with Marcus Aurelius, but I still enjoyed reading him, and I'm enjoying engaging critically with a chronological progression of thought. Next up in the Great Ideas series: a re-match between me and St. Augustine of Hippo.

*I realize that the first part of this essay sounds like I'm being paid by Penguin to shill for them. This is not the case. Although, given that I'm already a fan, I wouldn't say no to a free set of these books...Penguin? Are you listening?

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography