“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” “If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.” – Marcus Aurelius
We live in precarious times. It feels like the end of empire times, and I am increasingly struck by parallels to another such time, when the Roman Empire was in its final days. Stable politics is threatened by voters becoming addicted to sensationalism and manipulated through our modern age’s “games of the coliseum” – internet and cable tv. Truly devilish politics is taking place with authoritarian personalities seeking to destabilize American democracy in a blatant power grab while democrats seem unable to effectively answer. It’s all Faustian. The planet’s ecological structure is destabilizing, sort of like having barbarians at the gates, and as it does, so too will human economic and social order while our society quibbles over ridiculous and superficial issues.
The metaphor of Nero fiddling while Rome burned seems very applicable to our collective leadership, but particularly to the right-wing socio-political-religious movement that has erupted in this country. Those who step forward urging temperance, responsibility, and compassion, advising that we look cooperatively to the very real problems that plague us rather than the emotional straw-dogs that dominate our politics are ignored if not ridiculed and attacked. It feels like maliciousness and stupidity has occupied the forum at a time when sincerity, truth-telling, mutuality, and wisdom are what is required to move us beyond this morass into a new age for humanity. As Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher, and emperor of Rome from 161 – 180 AD, advised, it’s time to break free of the madness and to step forward insisting on saying what is true and doing what is right. The times we live in are so precarious that it feels like we need to invent a whole new way for humans to be on the planet if we are to evolve as is necessary and not devolve into chaos, a dark age, in the coming century.
For insight into how to live through such times I find myself looking to Marcus Aurelius living through his time when the most powerful political, economic, cultural, and military power in the world was unraveling. Political forces that did not respect the wisdom and democratic traditions of the Greco-Roman culture had taken control for no other purpose than power and ego-aggrandizement and wielded that power with terrible selfishness and cruelty. Ceasar had been assassinated 100 years earlier and politics had devolved into power-seeking narcissists manipulating the public, referred to as the “mob.” Roman culture had become shallow and decadent. The gladiatorial games and other sensationalist entertainment from colosseums all over the empire were the key to gaining the attention, loyalty, and to swaying the mob.
In the midst of this civil and moral decay, Marcus Aurelius took a very Buddhist middle way, the path of stoicism, honor, and wisdom. He was unable to change the catastrophic course of the Empire’s collapse, but he found a vision of sanity for himself and for those who would listen amidst the swirling world of egoic excess all around them. As the momentum for the fall of the empire was implacable, Aurelius’s politics and policies made no real difference, but he outlined what could be and what an individual who sees the madness can do to hold their balance through such times.
In the times we are currently living through it feels like we need such a path, one marked by stoicism, honor, and wisdom. Although there are many individuals today walking the path of wisdom and compassion, our general American society and our world society show very little of these virtues in their values or behavior, certainly not in their economies or politics. Modern culture follows the path of blatant, manipulative disinformation, egocentricism, competitiveness, self-indulgence, overwhelming materialism, greed, and sensationalism. In contrast, the Stoics valued the virtues of truth, goodness, honesty, simplicity, courage, compassion, self-knowledge, and self-mastery, realizing that a well-lived life and a well-managed society required these virtues to be integrated into everyday and public life. Such virtues are sorely neglected today, but they ought not be, and living by these values might well be called The Wisdom Way, the way that if followed could turn looming human tragedy into a human rebirth.
The Wisdom Way is about a profoundly realistic, rational, and compassionate approach to life, realizing moderation, dignity, respect, and a caring and appreciative state of mind as essential for a balanced life where emotions do not overrun us, and our interactions are always measured by their constructiveness rather than who wins some ego game. The Wisdom Way also recognizes the importance of a deep spiritual life. It is, as the ancient Stoics realized, in recognizing there is a supremely intelligent order to the Universe, known to them as logos, which forms a web of interconnection through Life and through us, all in perfect harmony and balance. It is the antidote to humanity’s sickness of egoic confusion in defining oneself through separateness that causes so much personal and political instability and conflict, leading to valuing materialism, consumption, and competition over Nature, conservation, and cooperation.
This Stoic perspective on spirituality is very similar to the non-dual perspective of the interconnecting net of Life that undergirds Eastern wisdom traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. Life becomes ongoing ceremony where one is always in recognition of the spiritual dimension of everyone and everything in connection. From our society’s egoic perspective, we need religions and ceremonies to remind us of a spiritual dimension, yet, lost in our egocentricity and ego insecurity, we hardly ever touch the truly spiritual dimension, only saying prayers of petition, declaring identification with some religious sect and its hypocritical moralizing, performing ceremonial acts which are interpreted as necessary for the spiritual dimension to be favorable to our egoic desires. Most religious identification, rather than pointing us toward transcendence of our cruel and selfish ways, seems to reinforce them.
The truly wise and spiritual person lives in subtle ceremony all the time, constantly touching and revering the realm of the divine manifesting through everyone and everything, silently in blessing and gratitude. Deity is not seen in some Godhead, but rather in Life itself, in everyone and everything. As we live in a disintegrating civilization, it seems imperative that we bring a perspective of binding unity based in endless compassion into the new human society we must build. The framers of our American Constitution were right in separating religion from politics, yet what is consistently missed is that the framing is filled with spirituality, calling for universal inalienable rights endowed by the Creator and calling us to more perfect union. The right to the pursuit of happiness only needs to be reinterpreted out of materialism, competition, and consumerism into the right to basic security for all, extending even beyond the human into the Natural world, the source of all that supports and sustains us, not only materially, but spiritually as well. For too many, the American ethos tragically has tended toward the notion of freedom as the freedom to exploit, and I do not believe this was in the minds of key founders, Stoics and Deists among them, truly spiritual and idealistic persons.
We can, and we must, reinvent human society, as it is built now on human egocentric foolishness that threatens to capsize everything. We are stumbling along, valuing what is of really very little value – gaudy excess, power, riches, and luxury – having lost the soul of what it is to be alive and to be truly free. Our lives have lost reverence, and what is life if it is not experienced with reverence? All the wisdom traditions that have existed on the fringe of human power-mad civilizations from the beginning, have, as did the ancient Stoics, called on humanity to value moderation, balance, compassion, the basic and the good, to forgo greed and opulence, to stay close to our origin in Nature, living in reverence and awe of the miracle that is Life. Does it not seem time to heed this wisdom?
For our individual and collective lives to make sense, we must make this return that is really the truest going forward. We must look to the laws of Nature – balance, harmony, infinite diversity within unity, a reawakened sense of the sacred. We need not turn away from the best of our technology, our science that points us into the heart and secrets of Nature while creating safety and basic convenience. We only need to redirect it into sustaining and deepening our connection and understanding with the natural world. We need to recognize the great new frontier it has opened before us that realizes consciousness as the underpinning of all existence. Our science and technology need to be rededicated into celebration and support of the brilliance of the natural world, and make it the heart of the human world. We are designed by the Universe to be exquisite instruments of subtle and complex consciousness, but heretofore we have squandered this gift in vain celebration of our own cleverness. From out of the past, wisdom traditions from Buddhism to Stoicism call upon us to “wake up!” And how do we do this? Marcus Aurelius shares with us in answer to this question this 2000-year-old wisdom: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” Can you see the necessity of embracing necessary change, in rededicating and rebuilding our lives, individually and collectively to a new way of thinking, to making a new human civilization based in the values of wisdom and not ego’s values of competition, wealth and power? It’s not really even a choice. We must. And the good news is that we can.