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Monday, June 23, 2008

The Emperor's Handbook – A Commentary (Book 2)

First thing every morning, tell yourself today I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor. Ignorance of good and evil has made them what they are. But I know that the good is by nature beautiful and the bad ugly, and I know that these wrong-doers are by nature my brothers, not by blood or breeding, but by being similarly endowed with reason and sharing in the divine. None of them can harm me, for none can force me to do wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids, and upper and lower rows of teeth. To work against one another is contrary to nature, and what could be more like working against someone than resenting or abandoning him?

First of all, notice that Aurelius sees humanity for what it is, warts and all. There is no naive idealism here. Some people are rotten and that's just the way it is. So why are these people bad? Because they are ignorant of the truth. Not because they are poor or inherently blood thirsty, but because they lack knowledge of good and evil. And since good is by nature beautiful, we might assume that some people are bad because they lack an appreciation for beauty, just as other people might be color blind or lack the ability to hear certain frequencies. But instead of condemning "wrong-doers" as a blight upon the world, Aurelius says they are our brothers for they are endowed with reason and share in the divine. This beneficent attitude is surprising coming from a Roman emperor who is busy suppressing the Christian religion. Nevertheless, he makes a practical observation that wrong-doers cannot force me to do wrong against my will. From this, we can infer two things: that knowledge is an antidote to wrong-doing; that we control our own will, and cannot be forced to act against it. Aurelius makes another interesting point: that Romans (and perhaps, by extension, all of humanity) should get along with one another because to work against one another is contrary to nature. Again, this echoes the sentiment expressed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: for if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Again, these thoughts were written while Aurelius was campaigning to suppress the Germanic tribes on the river Gran, so it is wrong to think he was advocating peace and love to all men. He wasn't. But, unlike some evangelical prophets, he did suggest that we not abandon our neighbors to moral oblivion just because they are disagreeable.

What am I but a little flesh, a little breath, and the thinking part that rules the whole? Forget your books! They aren't any part of you. And as someone who is dying, you should disregard the flesh as well: it is nothing but blood and bones and a network of muscle tissues, nerves, and arteries. Breath! What is that? A puff of wind that is never the same, being sucked in one moment and blown out the next. That leaves the thinking part, the part meant to rule. Now that you are old, it is time you stopped allowing it to be enslaved, jerked about by every selfish whim, grumbling at its present lot one moment and bemoaning the future the next.

Aurelius believes the mind should rule over the body. In fact, as odd as it sounds, the only part of you which is real is the mind. The body is simply a container for the mind and that other thing which he calls "breath," an animating force giving life to the mind and body. But who we are, in other words, the thing which regulates our entire character and will (i.e., our conscience), is derived from that "thinking part which rules the whole." So, if the body is injured, it will not alter who we are; yet when the mind is destroyed we are completely lost. Thus, mind controls will, just as will controls the movements of our body. It sounds simple. Just make up your mind to do the right thing, and your body will follow. Yet, almost anyone can see this does not always happen. But it does happen more frequently if the mind is composed and not beset with trivialities. Aurelius is nobody's fool. He knows that human behavior is complicated and not everyone does what he is supposed to do. But if our mind rules over us, what happens if the mind is disoriented and filled with a lot of foolish nonsense? Maybe something else is needed to keep us on the right track.

So what's the point of it all? Simply this. You embarked; you sailed; you landed. Now disembark! If it is to start a new life, you will find the gods there too. If it is to lose all consciousness, you will be liberated from the tyranny of pleasure and pain and from your bondage to an earthly shell that is vastly inferior to the master contained in it. For the spirit is intelligent and godlike whereas the body is blood and dust.

The big fear which dominates human life is the question of what happens to us after death. Aurelius seems immune from this worry. He has no particular interest in answering that question. Life in the here and now is all that he cares about. He believes that life in the next world, if there is one, will take care of itself. Either you go on or you do not. If there is no second life, then why spend time worrying over it? And if there is a continuation after death, the gods will be there to guide us. Seems pretty straight forward. So what's the problem? Note, please, that Aurelius has no concept of hell. No idea of eternal torment or the sword of Damocles hanging over our head. The Christian call to salvation relies on the threat of the burning fires of hell: repent or prepare to meet your doom. Aurelius has a more benign view of things. He has no desire for bodily resurrection because the body is a kind of prison or tomb, vastly inferior to the master contained in it. Thus, if anything endures beyond death it should be our mind which is the only thing worth preserving. Note, also, the complete absence of "soul" in this account. Soul should not be confused with Aurelius' idea of spirit which is simply the life force which animates us. There is no provision for souls in his philosophy. Nothing to be damned or saved for eternity. The focus is on here and now. In that sense, like the sayings of Confucius, it is an activist philosophy which promotes good behavior, not a speculative philosophy like Hegel or Bergson.

Do not waste the rest of your life speculating about others in ways that are not to your mutual advantage...Purge your mind of all aimless and idle thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill...This sort of man determined to be counted among the best in the pursuit of virtue, is a veritable priest and minister of the gods, especially of the god that dwells within him and keeps him untainted by pleasure, unharmed by pain, safe from any wrong, innocent of all evil, a mighty warrior in the greatest warfare of all—the struggle against passion's dominion.

You can't help but find a bit of Emerson or Thoreau in these words. Here, Aurelius preaches the value of self-reliance and the need for control over one's passions. It reminds us of Aristotle's high regard for moderation in life. It could easily pass for a contemporary guide to self-mastery:

Does the news bother you? Do you worry about things out of your control? Then take the time to concentrate your mind in the acquisition of some new and useful knowledge and stop it from flitting about. By the same token, guard against making the mistake of those who keep themselves so busy trying to gain control that they wear themselves out and lose their sense of direction, having no purpose to guide their actions or even their thoughts.

It is hard to believe these words were not written today by someone whose books appear on the "self-help' aisle at your local bookstore. When you first read The Meditations, the advice does not seem profound or even slightly original. But when you consider that it comes from a man writing 1,800 years ago, and whose main occupation was governing the Roman empire, it deserves a second look. Anyone searching for some clarity on how to cope with the stress and moral fragmentation of modern life need look no further. What seems to be missing for many people today is a "purpose to guide their actions or even their thoughts." And what is the purpose that Aurelius is offering? In short, it is the cultivation of virtue. And by "virtue," I mean the classical sense of moral and political grace, or rectitude. Another way of saying it is the development of character, an attitude toward life that includes a larger perspective than the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. It implies self-awareness but not self-obsession. For Aurelius, a Roman citizen will always find himself at the center of a larger, public arena in which the revelation of his duty must be fulfilled. In one sense, Aurelius found what religion was unable to provide: a means of locating one's self in a violent, uncertain world. You might say that he offers a secular equivalent to the quest for God.


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