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Where Classical Meets Christian: What Marcus Aurelius Can Teach Us Today

Like most readers, I’m often asked to recommend books or name my favorite authors. These questions are fun and generally easy to answer, but that little skeptic inside me wants to know why I have seldom answered these questions the same way. Do I really not know the answer? Am I trying to impress or please my interrogator? Am I unconsciously sizing her up and offering her a book or author I think she’ll enjoy?

Perhaps. But I suspect it has more to do with the stage in life at which I encountered a certain book or author. Had you asked me at age 12 my favorite book, I would probably have said David Copperfield, a story with which I deeply identified, perhaps because I read it at the age when I too went off to a boys boarding school, albeit one much happier than Salem House. Ten years later, I might have said the poetry of Rupert Brooke or Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, a study that struck me at the time (and still does) as stunningly original and brilliant. I’m embarrassed now to admit that I even went through a brief Ayn Rand phase. Some of these books stay with us for life because of the influence they had upon us at the time, but most of them probably lose their appeal, and if perchance we re-read them years later, we wonder at the enthusiastic notes we once scribbled in their margins.

And then there are those authors whom we meet early on and never seem to tire of or outgrow. For me, many of the biblical authors and Homer top that list. But also on that list, for reasons I’d like to explore in this essay, is Marcus Aurelius and his Stoic handbook. This will probably not surprise those who know me well; however, it is not something that appears on many school or college reading lists and until recently, not something–according to the popular historian Michael Grant–available to English readers in a good translation.

Be that as it may, it was George Long’s crabby translation that I pulled from the shelves of my high school’s library one wintry afternoon and began to read with growing interest. I knew nothing then about Marcus Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor who penned these notes to himself, nor had I ever heard of Stoicism, his reputed philosophy. What was it in his notes, I now ask myself, that touched the heart or fired the imagination of a baseball-playing, Beatles-listening American teenager?

I’m sure it had something to do with his style, a style that grew out of his use of the second person. Although the you he addresses is himself, when reading his notes the you becomes the reader, and it draws one in. “I’m speaking to YOU, Mister.”

The ethical preoccupations of Marcus and the New Testament writers are much the same: what it means to be just and good, the importance of living with purpose and without luxury, the requirements of stewardship and serving others, the role of prayer and Providence, the danger of making false value judgments and blaming others, the need to control desire and the passions.

The tone he takes is bold, sharp and unsparing. The gloves are off; the knuckles bare. Were he a Christian, his early translators would have titled his handbook Confessions rather than Meditations. Being a Roman and a soldier, he wasn’t not interested in wasting words or sparing feelings or hypothesizing like a Greek. Then, as now, I despised long-windedness in others and, when I later became a bloviating teacher, in myself.

Not just his style appealed to me, however. The ideas he chose to wrestle with resonated with my own life experience in a competitive community of adolescent boys as well as with my Christian upbringing. The style of the Gospels and Epistles is also bold, sharp and unsparing, and New Testament ideas swim in the same ocean of thought as Marcus’. Whereas Marcus writes, “If it is good to say or do something, then it is even better to be criticized for having said or done it” (The Emperor’s Handbook. V.3), Jesus says, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.” (Matthew 5:11)

The ethical preoccupations of Marcus and the New Testament writers are much the same: what it means to be just and good, the importance of living with purpose and without luxury, the requirements of stewardship and serving others, the role of prayer and Providence, the danger of making false value judgments and blaming others, the need to control desire and the passions, etc. Of course, there are important differences, and therein lie the distinctions that cast Christianity in bold relief and help to explain why Christianity captured the moral imagination of the ancient world in a way that Stoicism failed to do. These distinctions may also offer some prophetic insights into the fate of Stoicism’s dramatic resurgence in our secular age.

But that is not where I want to take my little essay. Instead, I’d like to examine one very specific contribution of Marcus’ Stoic thought to Christian tradition and suggest that schools calling themselves classical Christian may be overlooking a rich source of learning and character formation by failing to put Marcus’ Meditations in the curriculum. Perhaps the best way to introduce this idea is simply by quoting from his handbook:

Act, speak, and think like a man ready to depart this life in the next breath. If there are gods, you have no reason to fear your flight from the land of the living, for they will not let any harm come to you; and if there are no gods, or they are indifferent to the affairs of men, why wish to go on living in a world without them or without their guidance and care? But in fact, there are gods, and they do care about men, and they have made it possible for men to guard themselves against what is truly evil. Were there any evil in what awaits us, they would have given us the means of avoiding it.

Besides, how can a man’s life be made worse by what does not make him morally worse? Nature cannot possibly have overlooked such an obvious contradiction out of ignorance, or having been aware of it, failed to protect us from it or to resolve it. Nor can nature have erred so egregiously, through want of power or skill, in allowing so-called goods and evils to rain down indiscriminately on good and bad men in roughly equal measure. The truth is this: since death and life, glory and shame, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all of these happen to the good and bad alike, without making the one worse or the other better, none of these things can be in itself either good or bad. (Ibid. II.11.)

This belief – that whatever fails to improve or harm us morally should not be regarded as either good or bad – gave rise to a core idea for the Stoics: what they called indifference to those things that make a man neither better nor worse. From this idea derives the popular image of the Stoic, the man who endures pain and poverty unflinchingly and cares not a fig for pleasure or the things of this world. Why? Because neither pain nor pleasure, poverty nor wealth can be shown to make a man better or worse. Indeed, a second-century Roman might be inclined to argue that pain improves a man and pleasure corrupts him. The Roman poet Juvenal observed that “wealth is more destructive than war.”

Building on this idea, St. Paul encourages the Romans to “glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3) This is not the song of the Psalmist who asks God to save him out of his tribulations, but of the Stoic who discerns in tribulation a real good.

(The Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, by Eugene Delacroix, 1844)

Now consider the episode involving the rich young man described in all three synoptic Gospels. This young man, as you will recall, dutifully kept the Law “from his youth,” but when asked by Jesus to sell all he had and distribute it to the poor, became “very sorrowful.” (Luke 18:23) The Church Fathers frequently commented on this passage, and it was a favorite text for their homilies. They rightly discerned that the exchange with the rich young man really had to do with the question: who or what is good? The young man, naively or deceitfully, addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” and Jesus, knowing where this conversation is going, gently rebukes and reminds him that “No one is good but One, that One being God.”

This young man keeps the Law, but he is not indifferent to the things of this world. They are, in his eyes, a good more important than the only good who is God Himself. Clement of Alexandria, in “Salvation of the Rich Man”, draws this Stoic lesson from the story:

“The Savior by no means has excluded the rich on account of wealth itself, and possession of property, nor fenced off salvation against them, if they are able and willing to submit their life to God’s commandments, and prefer them to transitory things . . . If one is able in the midst of wealth to turn from its mystique, to entertain moderate desires, to exercise self-control, to seek God alone, and to breathe God and walk with God, such a man submits to the commandments, being free, unsubdued, free of disease, unwounded by wealth.”

Ah, the mystique of wealth! Even Marcus, a pagan living in a palace, saw the damage it was doing all around him. His repeated admonitions to himself all sound the same note: “Don’t become so attached to these things that you would be distraught if you were to lose them.” (Ibid. VII.27) Yet how many of us become distraught over the loss of the most trifling things!

The Fathers recognized, as reflected in Jesus’ comment about the camel and the needle’s eye, that this is a tall order. In fact, it is impossible without divine assistance. John of Damascus underlines this point writing that “when all the saints heard this command, they thought they should withdraw from this hardness of riches. They parted with all their goods. By this distribution of their riches to the poor, they laid up for themselves eternal riches. They took up the cross and followed Christ.” (Barlaam and Joseph 15.128-29)

Perhaps he had in mind Father Anthony, who as a rich young man himself heard this passage read in church and sold all he had and gave it to the poor and went out into the wilderness, like Elijah and the Baptist, to pray and depend on God to supply his needs, thereby becoming the father of monasticism. At the heart of monastic discipline (ascesis) is the Stoic principal of detachment from or indifference to material and worldly things. For those like Anthony called to the monastic life, this begins with a radical form of renunciation. The monk gives away everything, owns nothing, and lives in utter poverty, thereby bearing witness before the rest of us–buffered with crowded closets and over-flowing pantries, insurances policies and mutual funds, Social Security and Medicare –that God is the only truly good and needful thing, the all-sufficient lover of mankind.

In this sense, the monk has stepped beyond Stoicism and perhaps the letter of Jesus’ teaching; however, his renunciation is more profound than mere poverty. In fact, if he takes pride in his poverty he is in danger of losing his salvation. The entire point of this renunciation is to assert his Stoic indifference to the things of this world, as Abba Theodore writes in the Conferences (6.II.1 as quoted from Daniel G. Opperwall’s A Laymen in the Desert):

But those things are indifferent which can go to either side [virtue or sin] according to the intent or wish of their owner, as, for instance, riches, power, honor, bodily strength, good health, beauty, life itself, and death, poverty, bodily infirmities, injuries, and other things of the same sort, which can contribute either to good or to evil as the character intent of their owner directs.

The monk renounces the things of this world in order to fit through the eye of the needle. Doing so does not bring him through the eye. Indifference to these things does not in-and-of-itself benefit the monk or make him any better or worse, as it might for Marcus who seems to find his “salvation” in indifference. Abba Paphnutius spells this out when he describes the three pillars of monastic ascesis:

The first is that by which we physically cast aside all the riches and goods of the world. The second is that by which we refuse the fashions, vices and former dispositions of the soul and body. The third is that by which we begin to desire things that are invisible, calling our mind away from all apparent and visible things, such that we contemplate future realities. (Ibid. 3.VI.1)

What I find interesting here are the similarities and differences between Abba Paphnutius’ pillars and the Stoic philosophy of Marcus. Unlike the Desert Father, Marcus believed he could live in a palace surrounded by servants and still practice his philosophy. In his Meditations he thanks his father for teaching him that one “can live in a palace without body guards, extravagant attire, chandeliers, statues, and other luxuries.” (TEH. I.17) In short, without the fashions, vices and dispositions of those around him. Yet we know from reading Marcus and other Stoics like Seneca how difficult and often impossible this was without, like Epictetus, taking a vow of poverty and separating themselves from the world.

And for Marcus, the contemplation of future realities entailed a close inspection of apparent and visible things. In a characteristic passage from the Meditations he writes,

We should also pause to consider how charming and graceful are the unexpected effects of nature’s work. When bread is baking, for example, cracks appear in the crust. Although these would seem to confound the baker’s design, they attract our attention and help to arouse our appetite. Figs too burst open just when they are best to eat, and olives left on the tree to rot achieve a most exquisite beauty. Similarly, the golden grain’s drooping head, the lion’s furrowed brow, the boar’s foaming snout, and so many other details, if taken out of context, are not all that attractive, but when seen in their natural setting, they complete a picture and please the eye. (TEH. III.2)

For Marcus, the future reality to which all his contemplation pointed was death.

Think of what condition your body and soul should be in when death catches up with you. Think of the shortness of life, the vast expanse of time past and time to come, and the frailty of every material thing. (Ibid. XII.7)

These thoughts also concentrate the mind of the monk, but because he believes in a God who is both outside and above nature, yet “is everywhere and fills all things,” he sees in time the signposts of eternity, in life the prospect of union with God, and in death the hope of resurrection.

Like Marcus, we and our students live in the world surrounded by the clutter of all we possess, and like him we are expected to be indifferent to these things. But unlike him, we are also called to be saints, not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds.

But this isn’t really about monks, is it? How nice if we could dismiss these disciplines as something reserved, like the first pillar, for monastics only, but reading Stoics like Marcus reminds us, as if the Gospels and Epistles were not enough, that these disciplines are essential for all Christian life and, yes, for any human life worth living. Even the pagans understood this.

Abba Paphnutius drives home this point in the first person:

Because, while in the fervor of the early days of my conversion I made light of the mere worldly substance (which is not good nor evil in itself, but indifferent) I took no care to cast out the injurious powers of a bad heart, or to attain to the love of the Lord which is patient, which is “kind, which envies not, is not puffed up, is not soon angry, deals not perversely, seeks not its own, thinks no evil,” which “bears all things, endures all things.”

[I Corinthians 13:4-7} (Conferences 3.VII.2)

Like Marcus, we and our students live in the world surrounded by the clutter of all we possess, and like him, we are expected to be indifferent to these things. But unlike him, we are also called to be saints, not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, that we may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. These are the hard lessons my god-fearing parents tried to instill in their children, and they are the lessons that Marcus’ world and our own would have us forget and our students never to learn. Reason enough to bring Marcus into the classroom.

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