Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 7)

Would most Americans say the proverbial glass is half full or half empty? It depends on who you ask but Americans generally have a half full, can-do attitude. That’s why I think some of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy appeals to us and some of it doesn’t. Marcus says we should “think not so much of what you lack as what you have.” That’s the glass-is-half-full philosophy of life. Lots of Americans already look at the world that way. And there’s an optimistic tone when Marcus tells us we should “Always bear this in mind…that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life.” It may be true that very little is necessary for living a happy life but a lot of Americans today think if you’ve got more stuff then you’ve got an even better shot at happiness. The best shot of all is if you have stuff like boats and time-share properties and have enough time and money to take advantage of self-help programs. Marcus Aurelius could have been an announcer on American TV pitching an infomercial when he assures us that “To recover your life is in your power…” That’s the can-do spirit of America talking. Where do I sign up?

However, before we sign up we need to read the fine print and look at the other side of Marcus. It’s not all fun and games. In some ways he cuts against the grain of what Americans hope to achieve in life. We want to be happy although many of us are conscious that we live in a culture based heavily on consumerism. But by and large we think we’re pretty good folks and America is a good place to live. And it is. We have our problems, as all societies do. What Marcus wants us to do is confront the bad as well as the good. He asks “What is badness? It is that which you have often seen. Amidst all that happens, keep in mind that you have seen it often…There is nothing new.” We have seen it. We’ve seen it often and in the midst of our communities in our daily lives. We know what badness is just as well as Marcus knew it because it’s not much different in modern America than it was in ancient Rome. The difference is how we deal with it. Marcus is not speaking for Americans when he says “Be upright, or be made upright.” Marcus believes we should voluntarily choose to live right. But what if we don’t? Should citizens “be made upright” by the laws of society? How? American courts aren’t in agreement with Marcus on this. As long as I’m not breaking any laws or harming others I’m pretty much left alone to do as I please in America. Whether I’m living right or not is my own business. Who is Marcus to tell me how I should live?

But to read the Meditations and come away with the idea of Marcus Aurelius as some kind of shyster ad man or a prudish scold is to diminish the work. Readers can cherry-pick these meditations and pretty much find whatever they’re looking for. Are you an optimist? Well, so is Marcus: “Love mankind. Follow God.” Are you a pessimist? Marcus is too: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s.” Need a tough guy philosophy of life? Marcus says “The breeze that heaven has sent we must endure, and toil without complaining.” Are you the kind of person who sees things as they really are and tells it like it is? Marcus agrees and thinks we should “Wipe out the imagination.” So what kind of philosophy is this? Is it philosophy at all? Critics can point to numerous instances where Marcus seems to contradict himself. And they have a point. There are times when he does seem to be taking opposite sides. There are times when I’ve done that myself. Since I’m not a philosopher I have that luxury. Maybe Marcus wasn’t trying to be a philosopher. He was trying to be a good emperor. Before he could be a good emperor he had to be a good Roman. And before he could be a good Roman he had to be a good man. It was real life. It seems to me that this is philosophy at its best.


Blogger SMJ said...

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Americans like things simple, which is one of the reasons that German philosophy never takes root here. Maybe that's for the best. We're probably better off with a diet of simple ideas from simple people than with moral complexity from a demented genius like Nietzsche. If Marcus Aurelius contradicts himself from time to time, that just means he is human (like us), and that living in a human world is complicated. Most of us want to be good, whatever "good" means, but we are not supermen. We are tempted to do things we shouldn't do by our desire for pleasure, and our inability to live up to the requirements for moral perfection. Aurelius is aware of all this. He doesn't expect moral perfection from us, but he does offer some good advice for those of us who desire to live better lives.

I agree that Americans are generally optimistic and that optimism is a good thing. It allows us to keep going to work, even on dark days when we don't feel like getting out of bed. Optimism creates the kind of positive energy that makes dealing with life's pain and disappointment a lot easier than it otherwise would be. And it might be true that simple people are more optimistic than complicated people. Which might be an argument in favor of simplicity. Even though life itself is complicated.

8/04/2008 8:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home