December 3, 2018
“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Bk. 4)
Somedays, we all wonder, how do we put up with things? We all hit rough patches occasionally. And it’s a sure thing that someone else has it worse than I do, or you do. Remember those Christians in the Coliseum. But when we’re in a bad fix, do we make our own rules, or look for those offered by others? This past weekend brought the news of the passing of President George H. W. Bush, a man who gave his country a life of service, who knew what rules should govern his life. Then this week sweeps me into the operating room at Virginia Hospital Center, where I’ll get a “thymic carcinoma” scooped from my chest. That’s where I’ll be when the country is honoring President Bush.
I haven’t measured up to his example. But when we get in a fix we consult the experts. Our faith can get me through these medical things. It sustains us, in mysterious ways, by teaching that those tough stretches are, in a way, a gift: they make our lives richer for confronting them, whatever the outcome. We get nearly the same lesson from the Greek and later the Roman Stoics, most closely identified with Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations. That’s doesn’t mean equivalence between the Christian message and human wisdom. One draws us to eternity. Marcus was no Christian. But his Meditations help us focus.
Like his Roman contemporaries, Marcus was educated in the thought of the Greek philosophers, among them Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) and a century later, Socrates, both considered, among others, the original Stoics. Socrates left nothing written. The legend of his acceptance of death has come to represent the purest expression of Stoicism.
Marcus led Roman armies in intermittent wars, putting down rebellions until he died in 180 A.D. at 58. He wrote his meditations for himself; he never intended them for publication. It’s uncertain what happened to his notes after he died, but a 4th century history hints that they were in circulation at that time. Then they were lost in the West for nearly a thousand years, as the Empire declined. Sometime in the 10th century copies appeared in the East. Scholars believe that after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, academics fled to the West, bringing hand-copied fragments, garbled and incomplete.
What’s left are the Meditations, in 12 books, that now represent the philosophy of Stoicism (from the word “stoa,” referring to a porch in Athens where the early Stoics taught). Today, we understand the term as the willingness to bear up to hardship. But the Meditations teach more eloquent lessons: that the world is an orderly place, controlled by logic (logos), which governs the entire universe, yet also allowed room for free will. The Stoic world is fundamentally rational. From there it’s not a long leap to see the shadow, although only the shadow, of Christianity, by inserting “God” in place of “logos.”
So we get this in Meditations. Marcus, intent not on teaching others but on understanding his own life, offers a way of thinking that shores up faith. In Book 7 he writes: “Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated.” This thinking is a departure—not the cold logic of the early Greeks.
Book 1 is highly biographical: “1. My grandfather: character, self-control. 2. My father: integrity and manliness. 5. My first teacher: to put up with discomfort and not make demands. 9. Sextus: kindness. An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it means to live as nature requires.”
Book 2: “I have seen the beauty of the good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own … and possessing a share of the divine.”
And on into Book 3: “To welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to stain or disturb the spirit within him with false beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by obeying God, saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if others don’t acknowledge it, this life lived with simplicity, humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads to the end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.”
And repeat, for emphasis: “to live as nature requires.”
Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, who for 19 years held near-absolute power over nations, had a more muscular take on life than the 12 guys at the Sea of Galilee 150 years earlier. But here and there, their minds and souls meet. When they wheel you into the OR, both work.