“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” – “Keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” – Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 A.D.)
Marcus Aurelius was known as the last of the Five Good Emperors of ancient Rome and ruled from 161 to 180 A.D. and is noted as being possibly as close to Plato’s ideal of the Philosopher King as any ruler in history. He is also known as one of the greatest of Stoic philosophers, Stoicism being the most enduring and inspiring of the Hellenistic philosophies emerging from the Socratic/ Platonic tradition, the others being Epicureanism, which extolled the pursuit of pleasure albeit with a certain philosophical moderation, and Cynicism, which taught the development of reason and virtue within an extreme asceticism and an unyielding criticism and rejection of cosmopolitanism, extolling a life-style attuned with Nature.
Marcus Aurelius, and the Stoicism he and other philosophers such as Zeno of Citium (336 – 265 BCE), Cato (95-46 BCE), Seneca (4 BCE- 65 A.D.) and Epictetus (50-135 A.D.) taught and lived, was probably as close to Buddhist philosophy as any Western school of thought. It extolled virtue, truth, goodness, simplicity, courage, self-knowledge and mastery, and self-reliance in the face of adversity, while living in meditation on what it is to be in accordance with the wisdom of Nature. Stoics also believed in a supremely intelligent order to the Universe known as logos, a perfect web of interconnection underpinning existence,with which humanity must seek alignment if wisdom and virtue were to prevail. In similarity to the Cynic philosophy there was emphasis on reason and self-reliance, except that Stoicism, like Buddhism, represented a kind of middle way, in that, unlike Epicureans, it preached modesty in lifestyle while not the Cynics’ asceticism and rejection of social convention. This makes Stoicism an accessible philosophy for practical people who are functioning within society, particularly those with authority and responsibility. As Aurelius was known not just as one who espoused but lived the philosophy, it is easy to see why he was regarded as a “good” ruler.
Which brings us to today’s world and the challenges we face. As Aurelius was faced with external and internal threats to the stability and continuation of the Roman Empire, we are faced with external and internal threats to the continuation of the American experiment in liberal democracy, which amounts to a sort of empire, as American values have succeeded in dominating the modern world in much the way Roman values dominated the ancient world. Well worth noting is that many among the American founding fathers, including Jefferson and Washington, were admirers of the Stoic philosophers and the United States at its inception was intended as an experiment in governance by the stoic principles of reason, goodness, virtue, and justice bestowed equally to all (acknowledging that both societies engaged in slavery, severe classism and many prejudices). What is important is not the purity of their understanding and implementation, rather that their intentions were directed toward establishing a course for the society guided by these principles. As other great American leaders, such as Lincoln and both Roosevelts, can be seen as embodiments of stoic political philosophy, it could be said that Stoicism has helped shape the founding and development of the American state, and it may be that in this time of great uncertainty the Stoics may offer some important perspective on how to move America into its next era.
The period of the Good Emperors is extolled because it was a period of sincere attempts by the emperors to rule with wisdom, nobleness of character and fair justice. Yet while the rulers may have been inclined to Stoicism, it can well be said that the dominant attitude and tastes of the people of Rome was hedonistic well beyond Epicureanism, pursuing a life of extravagant and even obscene indulgence and vice. Like with Rome, it might well be seen that excesses of materialism, sensationalism, vanity, selfishness, shallowness, and corruption have eroded the character of America and now threaten to leave us as incapable of addressing the challenges that face our future as was the case with post-Aurelian Rome. Rather than reason and truth being held as absolute guides, now uninformed opinion, wild speculation, conspiracy theory, lies and slander increasingly are taking over our political and social discourse.
As Rome fell under the inept and corrupt leadership of Marcus Aurelius’s son Commodus and the chaos of succession that followed while external pressures and internal deterioration grew, the question arises, is America at the end-point of any expectation for nobility in its leaders or its political culture? And is this crisis of virtuous and courageous leadership reflective of the absence of nobility in our general culture as materialism and self-indulgence have replaced the nation’s founding ideals – as had become the case for ancient Rome? Has lurid media replaced the Coliseum? And has populism, the empowering of ignorance and whim, taken over as was the case in Rome as “rule of the mob” took over, thus making virtuous and wise leadership nearly impossible? Are we at the end of America’s greatness and idealism just when it is needed the most? How can we marshal vision, compassion, wisdom and courage in the rebuilding of our society toward greater internal political and economic justice that includes not only all people, but the realm of Nature as well? Are we so lost in short-sighted and foolish jingoism and barely disguised racism that we believe it is best if we stand alone in the world behind walls and trade and tariff-wars just when the international community looks to us for leadership as the entire world faces the collective challenge of halting and reversing environmental degradation?
We can only hope not. Yet hope is no basis upon which to entrust the future of our society and the world. We must, as both Buddhist and Stoic teachings instruct, look to recognizing inherent virtue and self-reliance as our nature; otherwise, we are faced with the very real possibility of our society devolving into some variation of barbarism, as did Europe through the Dark Ages. The Stoics believed the supreme good to be an “honorable” life and that an honorable life requires the perfection of human nature through development of courageous, humble, compassionate, wise and virtuous harmonization with Universal Nature – and I can think of no better set of values upon which to build an American renewal than these.
It might be observed that Aurelius’s failing was in his not holding his society and his offspring to the same standard of virtue that he held himself, and so the fall of Rome came about from a rot within that was unable to withstand the growing storm without, much like what will fell a great oak tree. Perhaps as in the two thousand years separating our time from Aurelius, social evolution has moved the authority of society from an absolute ruler to the democratic will of the people, and with it, the obligation to hold themselves and their political and institutional leaders to a much higher standard than we are now too often witnessing. Perhaps what is necessary in our society is the development of collective philosopher kings, where people accept their democratic responsibility to rule with wisdom and compassion, elevating to offices of governance only those who embody stoic ideals rather than the corrupt narcissists all too often now elevated to public office who believe the office and the country are there to feed their lust for vanity and power. Yet I do have hope – for I know there are many who long for a more virtuous politics and national purpose, and perhaps this is a call to just those citizens to step forward – and many are. The good news is that while one polarity of our political life seems to be following the worst impulses that felled Rome, there is a growing sense of compassionate and courageous duty which is motivating those who still believe in a virtuous America. May the wisdom that lives by the simple stoic philosophy of trusting in our own resilience, in truth, compassion, reason, modesty, and the imperative to do our best in service to our country, humanity and the World come to carry the day and the future.