Practicing stoicism as a guide for life
Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th baronet, a 19th century British politician, expressed this opinion to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 in a letter which concerned the moral problem of writing history about the Inquisition:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
A letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887), published in Historical Essays and Studies (1907).
Of course, he was correct: power does tend to corrupt, but only because power exposes the true nature of the ruler — not because it turns the ruler sour. One need only to study the great leaders of history, all those emperors and monarchs, whose reigns began with earnest intentions and ended in tyranny and bloodshed, to understand the reasoning behind Dalberg-Acton’s words. But there is one name which stands out amongst them all, an exception to the rule perhaps. And that is of Marcus Aurelius, who is rightly remembered as the last Good Emperor of the Roman Empire, and perhaps somewhat resembled Plato’s idea of the philosopher king — a ruler who possessed both a love of wisdom, as well as intelligence, reliability, and a willingness to live a simple life.
That Aurelius was a spiritual and simple man, and an orator of wisdom, is the impression he gives in his nowadays popular book, ‘Meditations’. When reading ‘Meditations’, one does not get the sense that the author was, at the time, the most powerful man on the continent. The vulnerability of Aurelius’ words falls onto one’s heart, and you feel yourself empathising not with the vast fears of a Roman Emperor, who must think only of war and power, but, instead, with the doubts of a rather lonely man. For Aurelius was a man with no equals, a man who had all the wealth and power in the known world, and yet no one who he could share it with. So sad are his words that the we imagine the author to be a fragile soul with similar worries and doubts as ourselves. Never at one point does he remind us that he is indeed a Roman emperor.
‘Meditations’ served as Aurelius’ journal, a private source of his own guidance and wisdom during times of hardship. His words are simple and honest, and the sentences are delivered like entries in a diary; his style is not viewed as anything regal or belonging to royalty. He was not writing for an audience, and he never considered that someone might publish his work. Rather, he was writing to remind himself of the virtues which would enable him to fulfil his duty as an emperor. He seems to repeatedly contemplate similar ideas and themes, as if he was struggling with the same moral problems throughout his life, and there is a definite melancholy tone in his writings. It is these essential themes in ‘Meditations’ which I would like to focus on here.
Live in Accordance With Our Nature
A little reflection and consideration of the natural world would lead us to see the truth of nature, that it is intrinsically perfect and beautiful; that the creatures and the flowers are performing their duties as intended, and contributing their part to the entire system. Everywhere one looks there are instances of nature creating and bringing abundance into the world. Thus the Stoics, having observed the way of nature, believed that we as humans must also have our part in this cosmic dance, and contribute in our own way to the whole. And as it is our powers of reasoning — the ability to understand, and form judgements logically — which distinguishes man from the plants and animals, the Stoics concluded that for man life ought to be lived according to the principles of reason; that the natural law of man is reason, which inspires virtuous actions.
We know virtue for its creativity, beauty, abundance, handsomeness, and order; and vice for its destructiveness, apathy, and ugliness. Every action which is in accordance to nature is graceful and decent, and causes the place and the witnesses to shine. For instance, in Book III Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that one ought not to gossip or speculate about the lives of others; for though it is tempting and easy conversation to speak ill of others, it degrades not only the subject, but also oneself. To speak words and commit actions which do not contribute, which do not create beauty and abundance, is to waste oneself in rejection when one could have better spent his time talking about the beauty of the good. If we are striving for virtue, and if we know right from wrong, then we will favour the company of minds which pursue truth, justice, temperance, and fortitude, rather than those who indulge in rumour and hearsay.
‘You Have Power Over Your Mind — Not Outside Events.’
Life brings inevitable and harsh conditions, which those who are unmindful prefer to distract themselves from, and which others boast that they remain unaffected by. However, so long as we feel ourselves to be sufferers of ill fate, to the degree that we think of ourselves as failures, we will persist in our bitterness towards our wound. The agony of what we interpret as a defeat floods through our spirit. But this hardness of heart imprisons and crystallises us into a past timeline as we have accepted our wound as a guard against new possibilities. It need not be this way, for as it is separation from nature that makes things painful and ugly, the wounded stoic, who returns things to nature and the whole, believes even the most disagreeable events to be a part of the divine order.
Our wound is nothing by itself except a question: are we to be defeated or are we to awaken and restore our powers beyond their original capacity? Perhaps we will be saved either way, but it is more productive to suffer for expansion and education, rather than to yearn for what has passed. If we can harmonise with our wound, and look upon it as a moment of initiation, as a womb of creation, from which we are to be born anew wiser and brighter than before, we will need no longer to be a victim of ourselves. With such a perspective we make ourselves a participant of an unseen master plan, which is working in our favour as a weapon for change in awareness and character. This brings us to the core of the Stoic worldview: that events are not good or bad in themselves, but are made so by our judgement of them; and this we can withdraw or amend for our benefit at any moment. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:
‘Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforward ness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.’
The Choice Between Truth and Repose
Perhaps the most striking thing about Marcus Aurelius, which shows itself clearly in his writings, was his profound ability for objectivity in thought, to see things for what they are, and to judge his behaviour without pride or emotional attachment. This honesty is made all the more impressive when we remember that this man was an emperor; and as a man above men, there was no one to condemn his attitude or his actions. It has always been easy to look beyond oneself, and believe in the illusion of victorious power, of money and fame, and in the overthrow of the existing order. But instead, Aurelius was introspective, and he practiced in his own person and in his own inward state those stoic precepts and ideals which man has aspired for since the beginning, rather than expecting them of his people and subjects.
Throughout the book he repeatedly asks himself about his true intentions and questions the source of his emotions and impulses:
‘Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?’
If we remain ignorant of ourselves, it is only because self-awareness is painful. The passage of introspection begins when one becomes aware of his emotions, and then questions where they originate from and how they came to be. It is merely a coping mechanism to whine about all that is corrupt in the world and other people; nothing is more fruitless than talking of how things should be. But to ascend beyond this state of dejection, and to gain access to the inner world, we have to seize the spinning of our minds by pausing and questioning as to why we feel particular emotions in response to particular circumstances. Only once we have taken responsibility for our weakness can we learn to defuse its destructive potential; and only then will the people in our lives become more human and less repulsive.