It is a curious thing that Marcus Aurelius was considered a Philosopher/King during his reign. This is of considerable importance given that his time as Roman Emperor was anything but calm.
Apparently, given the nature of his temperament, Marcus Aurelius found himself in the uneasy position of being a slave to power. Instead, he opted for a life of inner leisure, as it were, thus retiring to the inward sanctuary of philosophy. It is hardly of minor importance that this courageous act of sustained reflection by such a luminary, worldly man should have resulted in one of the great books of western culture: Meditations.
Equally curious, that tireless reservoir of wisdom, Discourses of Epictetus, is the work of a thinker who was a Roman slave. Epictetus demonstrated such intelligence and moral fortitude that his master gave him an education and subsequently bequeathed him his liberty. Isn’t it a funny thing what lofty heights some men reach by exercising their freedom?
Both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are seminal stoics who are very worthy and in need of being read today. Their thought delivered them to a timeless understanding of human reality. Their knowledge of the essences that inform human existence placed them in the select pantheon of genuinely wise, moral thinkers, the likes of: Socrates, Jesus, Le Rochefoucauld, Gracián, and Schopenhauer.
Perhaps the moral of the story that I am striving for is that upright, moral people who try to make their lives emblematic of moral/spiritual consistency are actually not that abundant in human history. Let us not be coy about such an uncomfortable, yet glaring truth.
Undoubtedly, the consistent exercise of virtue throughout a lifetime is the most difficult task that human beings can embrace. The hope has always been that our most endearing and lasting institutions, ideals and principles do indeed originate with the noble aspirations of such individuals.
This brings me to Montaigne’s profound embracement of innate and intuitive psychology. But have no illusions concerning what we today refer to as psychology, or what is essentially the cottage industry that it represents.
What writers like Montaigne and some of the above mentioned thinkers demonstrate so well is that invariably, natural psychology is an innate gift that only some people possess. This means that we should abandon some of our most cherished delusions about our compulsory education in delivering us to lasting understanding of what really motivates people, morally and spiritually, from the artificiality of institutionalized psychology. The same goes for our capacity for self-knowledge.
For one thing, Montaigne is correct in his essay “Of experience” that dissimilarity in people’s character, fortitude, reasoning ability and capacity to decipher experience, is precisely what defines us as individuals. Philosophers call this truism differentiation. For others who practice common sense, it is just “the way things are.”
Montaigne credits Socrates with the ability to distinguish between eggs, “so that he never took one for another; and although there were many hens, he could tell which one the egg came from.” Ah, there is perspicuity for you. This seemingly comedic anecdote speaks volumes about our innate capacity to decipher the essences that are the foundation of human forms of life. It also serves as a supreme example of great men complimenting their equals.
Of course, Montaigne goes on to recognize that we often succeed in making sense of reality by splicing experiences together and thus by recognizing some “similar corners.” This, in his estimation, underscores the moral act.
Returning to Epictetus, we cannot help but be dazzled by his grasp of the inner workings of man’s moral fiber. I know that this sounds like “quaint” language to our demoralized sensibility today. However, the reality remains that none of our modish, contemporary moral theorists have been able to unseat this fundamental condition of human reality. It was Plato who said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. If so, then let those who can see undertake the thankless, yeoman’s job of guiding the rest.
Epictetus takes this point to its logical, yet necessary condition: He advises us to never commend a man “on account of these things which are common to all, but on account of his principles,” for this is what dictates our good or bad actions.
Today, sentient, moral people are no longer shocked by the negative will and frigid ways of many people who surround us daily. One characteristic of our time is that people do not respect each other. The latter is a blatantly inescapable staple of contemporary life circa 2010.
We encounter many people daily who pass us by without the slightest notice of others in their vicinity. In a cynical time of dissolution such as ours, people no longer seem capable of recognizing the moral/spiritual goodness of others in their midst. While during one time in our lives we may have taken this personally, experience – that set of circumstances that we must make sense of and organize – tells us otherwise. Instead, we watch in horror the moral/spiritual decay that has engulfed western culture.
In fact, we seem to relish the varied and dominant forms of spiritual/moral corruption that afflicts our culture today. After all, moral/spiritual corruption seeks safety in numbers. These little men and women – the moral/spiritual Lilliputians – as I have always referred to them, do not even suspect how ill they truly are. This latent moral/spiritual malaise resembles termites in an attic or the quiet cancer that has come to rule over the human body.
Of course, it goes without saying that our moral/spiritual corruption is aided and abated – it may even come about - as the result of our shamelessly vacuous and self-indulgent over-intellectualizing. The latter is undoubtedly our most dangerous and demoralizing spectator sport today.
Somehow, our penchant for destruction has found a viable vehicle in our scribes, and in our institutions of higher learning. Our fertile, prescriptive moral/spiritual bankruptcy reminds me of little children who stuff themselves with delightful sweets only to throw up some time later. However, what children lack, and which our progressive gurus dwell upon, is that they cannot help themselves in writing and lecturing about throwing up.
Today we cannot respect, much less love our neighbor because we have squashed all desire and possibility to encounter the essence of transcendence: God. We are constantly reminded that “God does not exist and that Jesus was merely a revolutionary, temporal man.” Remember, this is coming from the mouth and pen of our most anointed elites. And as for evil? “What evil?” Today we take immense pride in passing off canned meat as caviar.
Now, let me return to my previous mention of intuitive psychology. Our overly “educated” agents of moral/spiritual mayhem do not suspect that cream always bubbles up to the top, as it were. History, they need to be reminded, is precisely the measure of truth verified through time.
Let us not fool ourselves, in the end everything is revealed. Our morally/spiritually tainted selves say much about how we engage human reality, how we live, and about our self-indulgent choices as individuals and a culture. Is this perhaps what is meant by “doing the devil’s work?”