Marcus Aurelius, Stoic: Rx for Pandemics, Trumpism, History Upended
Interesting how a book’s meaning alters from reading to reading.
When I first read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, in 2005, it was after my diagnosis of cancer. Beset with fear, I asked a friend who’s a classics scholar for guidance from the ancients; she suggested the Stoics, specifically Marcus Aurelius. More recently, I read that Marcus Aurelius had died during a plague, a fact I’d not first noted. Now, 17 years after that first reading, as the world is beset with plague — not only the viral kind, with the coronavirus and its mutations extending their hold, but the political and social and spiritual kind — it seemed a good idea to return to the Stoic whose words had comforted and instructed me earlier.
For we are beset with plagues of all kinds. Politically, while Donald Trump may (or may not) fade as leader of the Republican party, Trumpism has sunk its tentacles into the polity: that is, anti-democratic forces tending toward strongman rule. In the international arena, a strongman (Russia’s Vladimir Putin) has assaulted a democratic neighbor (Ukraine), upending History and threatening the rules-based international order. Socially, extreme polarization has left America a nation of strangers, with nearly half our number adhering to lies and conspiracy theories to bolster their (losing) position. Spiritually, all this dissociation, building on our surrender of a moral compass, has left us at sea — languishing, angry, distrustful. To treat these plagues, there is no vaccine (and recent experience tells us too many would be anti-vaccine anyway). But: A Stoic response can bolster.
Marcus Aurelius (121–180 A.D.) wrote his Meditations late in life, near the end of his 19-year rule as co-emperor of Rome. The co-emperor arrangement was the innovative response to the increasing stresses, internal and external, that Rome experienced after Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. As an emperor, Marcus was more steward than conquering Caesar; he is often called “the last of Rome’s good emperors.” At his death, Marcus had vacated Rome to join his legions in the Danube, to quell the barbarians pushing at the empire’s gates, a posting stretching thirteen years. While he titled his journal To Himself, the work is now properly called Meditations: Marcus’ tone is meditative, not imperial. By this time, Marcus had lost four of his five children, with only “worthless” Commodus remaining (so described in the Penguin edition); his marriage was not a love match but contracted for status. Altogether, along with the empire straining, Marcus had much to be stoic about. After crediting his grandfather for “serenity of temper” and his father who “cured me of all pomposity,” Marcus opens with a shout-out to his tutors who in his youth inculcated in him Stoicism’s tenets.
Which are, as Marcus practiced them — and as laid out in his Meditations: First and foremost, keep it real. See everything in its proper context. Strive to do good and to be good. Do not give in to passion. And, always but always, think of Rome and think of one’s countrymen. Substitute America for Rome and the Meditations point the way for us in our own perilous moment,
Comprised of 12 books with numbered entries, the Meditations contain much repetition, but to the uncertain frame of mind, repetition works to reinforce the author’s points. For a sample of Marcus’ informal voice and viewpoint, here is the opening of Book Two:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.”
What’s not to love here? This is Marcus Aurelius in his totality, plainly spoken — the realism, the social consciousness, the ethical-moral note. I especially love the determination “nobody can implicate me in what is degrading,” this pilgrim’s quest throughout this Brass Age in which we live.
And here is Marcus on the daily round, cast in grand but close-in terms, in Book Five’s opening:
“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm?”
Stoicism, as we interpret it today, evokes the ability to withstand pain with equanimity and, in the withstanding, to prevail. This new warmer voice, warning us of speed-bumps put up by the human parade that we’ll encounter daily, and urging us to get out of our bed and get on with things, is not the voice we expect of a Stoic. I first came to the Meditations with today’s usage in mind, about withstanding pain. And, indeed, Marcus has important things to say on pain:
“If it is past bearing, it makes an end of us; if it lasts, it can be borne. The mind, holding itself aloof from the body, retains its calm, and the master-reason remains unaltered. As for the parts injured by the pain, let them, if they can, declare their own grief.”
In other words, compartmentalize the pain. (This worked my first surgery, but not the second, six-hour ordeal: Compartmentalizing impossible, I’d gladly have made use of pain meds, if my body tolerated them; I settled for passage of time; but, yes, the pain was borne.) Even overwhelming pain, though, is not to be seen as an evil, nor pleasure as a good; per the reality principle, they simply are. “The soul,” says Marcus, “can always refuse to consider [pain] an evil, and so keep its skies unclouded and its calm unruffled.” Nor is pain an excuse to do evil:
“It lies in my own hands to ensure that no viciousness, cupidity, or turmoil of any kind finds a home in this soul of mine; it lies with me to perceive all things in their true light, and to deal with each of them as it merits. Remember this authority, which is nature’s gift to you.”
I love that about the “authority” to protect one’s soul. This touches on Marcus’ emphasis on one’s sovereignty. Long ago I read a quote attributed to Marcus — “All is opinion” — which I took to mean we opinion commentators rank highest in the hierarchy of skills. But Marcus means something else, its inversion: “Opinion is all.” Meaning: After discovering objective reality, how we act on it lies strictly with us, our sovereign reason, our sovereign soul. “Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.” I love that about “allowing” your freedom.
This in turn touches on another truth enunciated by Marcus, a life credo for me: “Reject your sense of injury”; in doing so, “the injury itself disappears.” This properly Stoic injunction flies in the face of Modernist kvetching, also the current “thing” of nursing an addiction, then writing a memoir about overcoming it. To jettison all excuse-making for one’s bad behavior may be Marcus’ most salient advice for us today. Also his challenge: “Who hinders you?” Minus the excuse-making, who, or what, hinders you in your path, really? For me, asking these questions has been tonic, elevating my life to the fully-matured level Marcus invokes.
All these vectors point to Marcus’ core injunction: to be good. “What is your trade? Goodness.” The world will not laud you in this quest: “[T]he buffoonery, quarreling, timidity, slothfulness, and servility that surround you will conspire to efface from your mind those hallowed maxims it [the world] apprehends so unphilosophically and dismisses so carelessly.” But, writes Marcus, “Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good.” This quest is a struggle: “Principles…lose their vitality…; it is for you to keep fanning these continually into fresh flame.” Hardship will afflict you, but “a man [or woman, Marcus] becomes better and more praiseworthy by the right uses which he [or she] makes of adversity.” Time is of the essence: “Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” “Approach each action as if it were your last”; avoid superfluity. “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one!” And: “The real point to consider is, What kind of soul did [a person] have?” Mind the pride, though: “no glancing around to see if you are observed”; let not “the bubble reputation” distract you. And, as you leave this world, be prepared for the world’s indifference:
“No man is so fortunate but that some who stand beside his death-bed will be hailing the coming loss with delight. He was virtuous, let us say, and wise; even so, will there not be one at the end who murmurs under his breath, ‘At last we can breathe freely again, without our master! To be sure, he was never harsh with any of us; but I always felt that he had a silent contempt for us’? Such is the fate of the virtuous.”
By now it may be clear how Marcus Aurelius can instruct us in our current plagues.
As to the pandemic itself, we can connect the dots, per Marcus: COVID is reality, not “hoax,” and we are obliged to do for ourselves what we can (masks, vaccines). Pestilence was a regular feature of ancient life; it may be why Marcus frequently refers to life as all “vapor and nothingness.” Ever the realist, he’d alert us to more surges, even pandemic becoming our new reality. Marcus’ dying words, so in keeping with his character, were: “Weep not for me, think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”
As for Trumpism: How to counter the infection seizing half the American electorate, causing it to embrace a flagrantly anti-democratic leader? Marcus would note the condition’s severity: “Infection of the mind is a far more dangerous pestilence than any unwholesomeness or disorder in the atmosphere around us” (italics mine); such people have become “puppets” of passion. “Anger is…a mark of weakness.” Marcus’ advice to us is rational enough: “You say they are mistaken? Why then, tell them so, and explain it to them, instead of being indignant.” And: “If you can, correct the offender; if not, correct the offense; if that too is impossible, what is the point of recrimination?” Dear Marcus: The “correct the offender” part is not working at all, despite an infinitude of reason applied. As to correcting the offense: The Trumpists’ attempted coup is being examined in public hearings. And, yes, avoid recrimination.
(Marcus has choice words for the pathogenic agent Trump: “The greatest of self-inflicted wrongs is to make of oneself…a kind of tumor or abscess on the universe.” Such type is an “excrescence,” an abnormality. “For shame, that ignorance and vanity should prove stronger than wisdom!”)
Finally, as to History upended: Here, I will exercise my sovereign reason and disagree with Marcus Aurelius. For to Marcus’ way of thinking, if force enters the equation, he’d counsel standing down: “If someone uses force to obstruct you, then…resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue.” To Marcus, the frame of reference is the city, Rome, and by extension the empire: “What is not harmful to the city cannot harm the citizen. In every fancied case of harm, apply the rule, ‘If the city is not harmed, I am not harmed either.’ But if the city should indeed be harmed, never rage at the culprit; rather, find out at what point his vision failed him.” About which counsel: Rather easy for an emperor to say!
For the world would be harmed immensely — beyond calculation — if, in our present moment, Putin, a faux Caesar, were to win Ukraine. Our latter-day experiment in self-governing democracy would go under and brute force would rule again — not an acceptable “harm,” Marcus. Thus when it comes to policy, to combat the accelerating rise of strongmen rulers, we need a more active Stoicism than Marcus’ comparatively passive version. The world is radically altered since Marcus’ era. It may be illusory, but the individual — make that: Individual — no longer bends the knee to a Caesar — oh wait, astonishing numbers of Americans do want to do just that….
There are other nits to pick with Marcus Aurelius: He condoned slavery; he was not enlightened about women (“womanish” was an epithet); and he condoned suicide for those of “finer feelings” (anathema to me; living with cancer guarantees my life-spark pulses non-stop).
But out on the Road of Life and Death, as a moral guide to doing and being, Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations are boon companions. “Everything I do,” he writes, “must have as its sole aim the service and harmony of all.” The final word here is from the Stoic emperor himself, in two passages, the first about doing:
“For a life that is sound and secure, cultivate a thorough insight into things and discover their essence, matter, and cause; put your whole heart into doing what is just; and speaking what is true; and for the rest, know the joy of life by piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them.”
And the second, about being:
“A little flesh, a little breath, and Reason to rule all — that is myself…. As one already on the threshold of death, think nothing of [the flesh]…. The breath, too; what is that? A whiff of wind; and not even the same wind, but every moment pulled out and drawn in anew. But the third, the Reason, the master — on this you must concentrate. Now that your hairs are grey, let it play the part of a slave no more, twitching puppet-wise at every pull of self-interest; and cease to fume at destiny by ever grumbling at today or lamenting over tomorrow. The whole divine economy is pervaded by Providence… [W]hat keeps the whole world in being is Change….”