The Meaning of Life?

From Book 2:

How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are- all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe. To observe too who these are whose opinions and voices give reputation; what death is, and the fact that, if a man looks at it in itself, and by the abstractive power of reflection resolves into their parts all the things which present themselves to the imagination in it, he will then consider it to be nothing else than an operation of nature; and if any one is afraid of an operation of nature, he is a child. This, however, is not only an operation of nature, but it is also a thing which conduces to the purposes of nature. 

Here is another one of those highly compressed passages that make the Meditations such difficult reading. The difficulty isn’t in the diction or syntax — it’s old-timey, sure, but you’ll catch on with a little practice — but rather with the multiple levels of meaning. As often with Marcus, there’s valuable practical instruction here, layered over philosophical speculation.

The practical first. For people not yet quite fluent in Victorian, let’s translate, following our standard procedure of quotation in italics, translation in bold.

How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are- all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe.

Pleasure and pain, fame and shame — they’re meaningless, because if you think about what they really are, they’re nothing but hot air. Your brain’s job, rightly understood, is to remind you of this.

To observe too who these are whose opinions and voices give reputation; what death is, and the fact that, if a man looks at it in itself, and by the abstractive power of reflection resolves into their parts all the things which present themselves to the imagination in it, he will then consider it to be nothing else than an operation of nature; and if any one is afraid of an operation of nature, he is a child.

Don’t be afraid of death. Why should you be? All things die. Being afraid of death is like being afraid of thunder – it’s startling, and it’s natural that a child is scared of it, but adults understand the science behind thunder. Any adult, then, who cowers like a child when thunder claps doesn’t deserve to be called an adult… and anyone who understand what death really is, is the same way.

Nor should you be concerned with your posthumous reputation. The people who praise or despise you are no more or less mortal creatures than you are. What does it matter what they say, when we all end up in the same place in the blink of an eye?

This, however, is not only an operation of nature, but it is also a thing which conduces to the purposes of nature. 

Here’s where our “translation” breaks down. How do we interpret “this” at the start of the sentence?

I looked at a different, ostentatiously “modern” translation of our passage, and got this:

(And not only a process of nature but a necessary one).

The parentheses are the translator’s, clearly indicating his belief that we should treat this as more or less a throwaway remark — “Death, yep, everyone dies, and that’s good when you think about it, because otherwise the world would be way overpopulated!!” You can almost hear the “LOL.”

I don’t read Classical Greek, but I’ve read quite a bit about Marcus, and I’m quite certain the man never made a LOL-worthy remark in his life. I prefer to interpret this passage as Marcus once again wrestling, in highly compressed form, with the fundamentals of his philosophy.

The key word is “purpose.” This is the rock on which all Materialism always founders. How could a universe as seemingly well-designed as ours have come about without a Designer? But even if we assume that it could, and did, it’s just a fact of human nature that we must act as if the universe were designed. Humans are meaning-making animals. Leszek Kolakowski suggests that this fact itself proves that the universe is designed — how could we ever have evolved the equipment to even ask the question, without there being an answer? I think Marcus is struggling with something similar here.

It’s both true and obvious that our world requires death. The breakdown of organic matter fuels the whole chain of chemical reactions that in turn produce other organic matter. But if you’re a Materialist, that statement begs the question. “Death is necessary because it’s necessary” is a tautology. What’s the “purpose” in that?

I suggest that Marcus is thinking of the Pre-Socratics’ answer to the question of the meaning of life: It’s the struggle itself, the agon. This was also Nietzsche’s answer… and Nietzsche, unsurprisingly, admired Marcus. This is something we need to explore.

Your thoughts?

A Natural History of Chistianity?

We’re getting a good ways into the weeds here with a discussion of Christianity’s spread, but since Marcus was Emperor during a critical period — and because he’s beloved by a long and vigorous monastic tradition — it’s worth spending a little more time on. Here’s new commenter dinothedoxie:

Another explanation is that Christianity is a religion for losers. (As Ted Turner infamously said, and he was correct. In fact most Christians would admit it – perhaps with the twist that everyone estranged from god is a loser)…

Then factor in that Christianity is a good religion from the powerful / rulers’ POV in that it mandates losers accepting their lot in this life and promising rewards after death. Meaning that the Christian ruler was less likely to meet a violent end from a rival or rebellion than his non Christian counter part.

[slightly edited]

“Christianity is for losers” was one of the standard objections in the ancient world (I mentioned this in the previous post; see “a religion for women and slaves”). “Christianity is good for keeping the masses in line” is also a common argument; Nietzsche’s version of it is particularly influential. The issue, though, is that both of these arguments are ahistorical, and ultimately self-contradictory.

Taking the “women and slaves” objection first, it’s simply false. Christianity had powerful patrons from the beginning. A guy like Irenaeus, for instance, couldn’t survive the persecutions of our main man Marcus Aurelius without some powerful patronage… and Irenaeus was just one generation away from the actual, living Apostles (via his teacher Polycarp).

Irenaeus is mainly known to history for his writings against the Alexandrian Gnostics, and since that would take us sixteen miles further into the weeds (even if I were qualified to talk about it, which I’m not), I just want y’all to notice that here’s a bishop of Lyon — that is, in France — addressing an Empire-wide audience about something that’s going on in Egypt. These are big-time, well-educated public men, writing to other big-time, well-educated public men — hardly women and slaves.

When Constantine officially “Christianized” the Empire after the Battle of Milvian Bridge, then (in 312 AD), he was just putting the official seal of approval on a process that was already well advanced… which leads to the second part of the “Christianity is for losers” argument, the notion that it’s useful for the rulers to encourage Christianity because it reconciles the plebs to their fate.

As far as I can tell, Machiavelli got the ball rolling on this one. In Book Six of The Prince, he’s ostensibly discussing the spectacular rise, and spectacularly bloody fall, of Girolamo Savonarola:

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.

The Prince, VI

Here’s Old Nick at his sneakiest. He’s quite right that Savonarola had no military force behind him, and that his examples of “successful” “prophets” — Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, Romulus — did. However, Machiavelli goes out of his way to avoid mentioning Jesus, the most ostentatiously UN-armed prophet in human history…

That’s because Machiavelli takes a back seat to no man in his disdain for Christianity, particularly its wussifying effect on leaders. One of the main reasons The Prince is often taught as a satire on Renaissance politics is that Machiavelli is so over the top in his praise of Pope Alexander VI and his son, Cesare Borgia (often “Valentino” or “Valentine”). These guys were Princes of the Church (Cesare was briefly a Cardinal), yet they were violent psychopaths even by Renaissance Italian standards (which, trust me, is really saying something).

Machiavelli spends considerable time arguing that princes should appear to be virtuous, upright, moral, etc., but always ready to do the opposite if political circumstances require it. Here again, he cites Pope Alexander VI as one of his main examples. Yet he never does the boneheadedly obvious thing: Suggesting that the Pope should actually appear to take his Papal duties seriously. If Christianity is so politically useful, shouldn’t, you know, the Pope make some hay out of it?

The fact that Machiavelli does NOT suggest this, combined with his very obvious “mistake” in not including Jesus in the “unarmed prophets” discussion, indicates one of two things:

  • Either Machiavelli doesn’t consider Christianity politically useful; or
  • He’s as baffled as we are by Christianity’s ascent to power.

The first is a rookie-level mistake, so we can eliminate it on general principles. Which leaves the second. Machiavelli is openly (in the context of his times) disdainful of Christianity, but he’s far too sharp not to see its usefulness…

Which brings us back, full circle, to the self-contradiction inherent in the “Christianity is great for the rulers” argument. Either Christianity is a religion for women and slaves, or it’s not. If it is, then why the hell would the world’s most powerful men even pretend to convert to it? Maybe Constantine was that great of an actor, standing there on the Milvian Bridge, to convince his troops in hoc signo vinces… but he had to know that he was setting himself up for failure, right?

If it’s a religion for women and slaves and everybody knows it, Constantine just admitted he’s a woman or a slave.

If it’s not, though, and he’s just bullshitting to win a battle, then his hypocrisy will soon become evident to all, and he’s worse off than before, because now he’s one of Machiavelli’s “armed prophets” — that is, he’s obliged himself to “take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.”

Either way, it’s a stupid mistake that no competent general or politician would make… and though Constantine the Great had his flaws, stupidity wasn’t one of them. It would’ve been far better for him to do what Machiavelli praises the Borgias for doing: Totally ignore religion and focus on the exercise of raw power.

The fact that Constantine was apparently a true believer — and convinced his closest friends and advisers of his sincerity, for the rest of his life — is, itself, a sufficient refutation of the “Christianity is just a useful tool for cynical rulers” argument.

It’s also that, of course — or, at least, it certainly can be — but as a naturalistic explanation for Christianity’s rise, it’s inadequate by itself.

What Feminized the Churches?

Further to the discussion below:

Any naturalistic explanation — that is to say, any historical explanation — of Christianity’s wildfire spread across Late Antiquity has to account for the…

Well, wait. Let’s back up. Since this post (like the blog in general) is aimed at the younger folks — circa college age — we need some definitions. Despite what you’ve seen in the classroom your entire lives, the discipline of History isn’t really about finding some micro-grievance somewhere in the past, in order to fanservice your teachers’ socio-sexual hangups. Though History is most definitely not a science, it shares science’s main goal: a naturalistic explanation for observed phenomena. Here’s an example:

Two hydrogen atoms combine with one oxygen atom to make a water molecule. It’s a physical law. It has to happen. It can’t not happen, and you can’t get anything else from that combination. Now, the origin of the physical law itself is above Humanity’s pay grade. Maybe it’s an act of divine will. Maybe it’s aliens. Even if the universe itself is a result of pure chance, it — our universe — is so constructed that two-hydrogen-one-oxygen behaves that way, and only that way, always and everywhere.

With me? Now, there are actually two levels of explanation going on here. The statement “2H + 1O = H20 is a physical law” is a naturalistic explanation. It explains all observed cases of 2H + 1O, and doesn’t require anything but 2H and 1O to work. The other stuff — the “above Humanity’s pay grade” stuff — are theological explanations (“it’s an act of Divine Will”), or metaphysical explanations (“the universe is the result of pure chance”), or what have you. They all require something beyond the brute facts of nature to work.

With me? Historical explanations should work the same way. Maybe Christianity went on to conquer the Roman world because it’s True, capital-T. That’s a possible explanation, but it’s not a naturalistic one, because it relies on above-our-pay-grade stuff to work. So, the fact that Christianity did go on to storm the Late Antique world requires an explanation that can only come from the “givens” of Late Antiquity….

…and that’s a problem, because Late Antiquity was a hyper-violent, hyper-masculine, hyper-militarized society, and Christianity sure seems to be a religion for wusses. “Nothing but women and slaves” was the verdict of a just about every pagan writer on Christians. Nor was this simply a Late Antique problem. The version of Beowulf we have certainly comes out of a Christian (or, at least, rapidly Christianizing) milieu, but no one can say that Beowulf, Hrothgar, et al were pussies. How could such a creed ever appeal to manly Roman legionaries, or the kind of guy who decides to fight Grendel unarmed… and in the nude, because the monster isn’t wearing clothes either?

I’m not a specialist in Late Antiquity, so I have no idea (sorry, guys, if you thought I was going to give you the answer to a problem that has baffled historians almost from the moment of Jesus’s death in an itty bitty blog post). I can suggest an answer to the title question, though:

Prosperity.

Indeed, that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to start this project with Marcus. No one is more cognizant of the emasculating effects of wealth and luxury than the ruler of the civilized world. Marcus is morbidly afraid of falling into decadence, precisely because he’s surrounded by it 24/7. He knew better than anyone where that leads, because he saw it every day.

If society won’t do you the favor of providing some hard times on which to sharpen yourself, you’ll have to provide your own. Marcus tells us how.

Pleasure, Pain, and the Prince

From book 2:

Theophrastus, in his comparison of bad acts- such a comparison as one would make in accordance with the common notions of mankind- says, like a true philosopher, that the offences which are committed through desire are more blameable than those which are committed through anger. For he who is excited by anger seems to turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction; but he who offends through desire, being overpowered by pleasure, seems to be in a manner more intemperate and more womanish in his offences. Rightly then, and in a way worthy of philosophy, he said that the offence which is committed with pleasure is more blameable than that which is committed with pain; and on the whole the one is more like a person who has been first wronged and through pain is compelled to be angry; but the other is moved by his own impulse to do wrong, being carried towards doing something by desire.

Unlike last post, where the old-timey translation was a hindrance, this one really gets at the heart of it: He who “offends through desire” is “more womanish in his offenses.” There is such a thing as manly, righteous anger, but wronging someone because you’re in thrall to your desires is just plain bitchy.

Isn’t that the story of Current Year America, gentlemen? The virtue signalling, the hysteria, the push for ever-greater control of every damn thing… it pretty much all boils down to chicks and their Mean Girl games, doesn’t it? Not to be crude or anything, but we’d all be better off, as a society, knowing “who bitch this is?,” don’t you think?

Read Marcus and learn to man up.

We could just leave it at that, of course, since I’ve already proven I’m “down” with the young people, as they say… but that’s hardly worthy of Marcus. So let’s dig a little deeper. Our passage here reminds me of Machiavelli:

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

The Prince, chapter XVII

A real man, moved by righteous anger — of the kind Marcus suggests is excusable, though of course not ideal — wouldn’t rest until he’d avenged his father’s death. But most men weren’t real men, either in Marcus’s day or Machiavelli’s, so they’d be much likelier to turn on their prince if he took their property, rather than murdered their fathers.

The applicability of all this to the present day is sadly obvious. Witness the ongoing Wuhan Flu freakout. So long as the parasites — government “employees,” welfare queens, soccer moms whose “husbands” are “essential”– keep getting paid, they’ll spend every one of their worthless hours on the Internet, shrieking and Karen-ing their shriveled hearts out to keep the lockdowns going. It’s the largest synchronized ovulation in human history, and it’s only made possible by our society’s all-out commitment to conspicuous consumption.

None of our “leaders” have read Machiavelli, let alone Marcus, but they understand proletarian psychology perfectly.

Free Will

From book 2:

All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by Providence. From thence all things flow; and there is besides necessity, and that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part. But that is good for every part of nature which the nature of the whole brings, and what serves to maintain this nature. Now the universe is preserved, as by the changes of the elements so by the changes of things compounded of the elements. Let these principles be enough for thee, let them always be fixed opinions. But cast away the thirst after books, that thou mayest not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from thy heart thankful to the gods.

Here’s where a less old-timey translation would really help, I admit. The folks who came over from Rotten Chestnuts are older (though not as old as this!), so we’re used to this kind of thing from our educations. But as I’ve found through sad experience, Dickens is almost incomprehensible to modern students, so if you’re one of those — and you, gentlemen, are the ones who need this the most — you probably want to throw up your hands and walk away when faced with that kind of wall of text. So let’s translate first, then discuss.

In an effort to not clog up the browser windows of smaller devices, I’m going to separate the quotes and translations with line breaks, not those big block quotes. Originals in italics, “translation” in bold. So:


All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by Providence. From thence all things flow; and there is besides (a) necessity, and (b) that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part.


For this, read Everything happens for a reason. For (a), we’re reading logical necessity, and for (b) we’re reading from the universe’s perspective.


But that is good for every part of nature which the nature of the whole brings, and what serves to maintain this nature. Now the universe is preserved, as by the changes of the elements so by the changes of things compounded of the elements.


This is an elaboration of (b), above. Marcus is saying that the same processes which govern the physical universe — e.g. the chemical reactions in the sun — also apply to humans.


Let these principles be enough for thee, let them always be fixed opinions. But cast away the thirst after books, that thou mayest not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from thy heart thankful to the gods.


Accept what happens to you, especially death, as natural.


We need a little bit of background before we can start unpacking this. The first thing to recall is that Stoics are Materialists. As such, “physics” was the first subject you studied at Stoic school. The psychology of it is above my pay grade, but for whatever reason, all Materialists seem to think the proposition “the universe is nothing but matter” explains everything else in their philosophy. It’s as true of philosophical heavy hitters like Zeno of Citium and Thomas Hobbes as it is of blathering fools like Ayn Rand and Karl Marx.1

Given that, you can read this whole passage as little more than an elaboration of the obvious fact of our own mortality. We’re all gonna die, gentlemen. We hardy need Marcus Aurelius, who’s been in the grave for close to two millennia now, to remind us of it.

It’s much more interesting to think of this passage as Marcus wrestling, albeit in highly compressed form, with Materialism’s first, biggest, and most glaring problem: What about free will?

Let’s start where Marcus starts, with the brute facts of nature. Life itself is one of those brute facts, but life also seems to be an exception to the rest of nature’s rules. To see this, let’s reexamine our passage. Marcus says

All that is from the gods is full of Providence.

Life, certainly, is from the gods.

That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by Providence.

This can only mean that life itself is a part of nature, but….

From thence all things flow; and there is besides (a) necessity, and (b) that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part.

Look at (a). We’re reading this as “logical necessity,” remember? In other words, since the Stoics are Materialists, we’re talking about a physical law. Put two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom together and you get water — always, inevitably, no exceptions, because that’s how the universe works. Which would seem to indicate that life itself comes about as a result of physical laws…

I trust y’all see where this is going. We have a pretty good handle on the physical processes that happen inside living things, but we’re never created life in the lab. Never even come close. We can’t even prevent the necessary physical processes from stopping, which when you think about it should be a snap, if we know half as much about these things as we think we do. Why can’t we sustain organic life?

The Materialist can, of course, duck this objection by saying something like “the science isn’t settled.” But he can’t duck the more serious implication, which is: If life itself is nothing but a series of necessary physical processes, like the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water, then everything that happens within organic life is also a result of necessary physical processes. The same chemical behavior that dictates hydrogen and oxygen making water necessarily dictate all my thoughts, all my feelings, all my actions.

Here’s a concrete example. Consider the sentence

Barack Obama was America’s greatest president.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that we can trace the physical act of typing all the way up, starting with “the skin of my fingertips impacting the plastic keys,” up through “muscles in my fingers contracting” to “synapses in the brain firing in just the right sequence to move the muscles.” Let’s even further stipulate that you can see it happening on an MRI machine. We’ll say that you can watch my brain firing, and that the exact firing pattern of typing “Barack Obama was America’s greatest president” is unique, such that there’s no possible mistake as to what’s happening, electro-chemically, in my brain.

Take it out to any level of detail you like, then — the physical act of typing is just a series of chemical reactions, easily understood (in theory at least). But… what on earth would cause me to type that particular sentence? The chemical reaction had to start somewhere, right? Something caused that particular pattern of nerves firing, which ended with the sentence “Barack Obama was America’s greatest president” up there on the screen.

What could it possibly be?

Let’s pause for a minute to note that whatever answer the non-Materialist comes up with will be inadequate, too. Even if we’re comfortable with the idea that there’s a bundle of soul-force (or whatever), called “Severian,” which has perfectly free will with which to direct a particular physical body, none of that explains how the soul-force (or whatever) causes the neurons to fire… and yet, the neurons do fire. They have to.

[For those interested in the history of philosophy, this is the “mind-body problem” so famously posed, and infamously dodged, by Descartes].2

It seems Marcus is on the horns of an unsolvable dilemma here. Even if a Stoic assumes that his life is in the gods’ hands, and that death can be explained by the personal decision of, say, Jupiter, he’s just kicked the philosophical can down the road a ways. Because remember: The Stoics are Materialists, full stop. Jupiter, too, is nothing but matter. He has to be, in order to function in the world. It’s a very different sort of matter than the kind of matter that makes up human bodies, of course (though maybe not different from the kind that makes up human souls), but it’s matter for all that…

The only answer I can give you, gentlemen, is the historian’s answer: Since all humans, everywhere, in all recorded societies at all known times, have behaved as if we have free will, we must take “belief in free will” as a necessary part of the human condition. Maybe it’s not. Maybe the Materialists are right, and at some point we’ll discover just how the nexus conditions seemed to “cause” the fiction called “Severian” to type these words onto a computer screen… but until then, all we can do is proceed as if free will is real. Marcus surely did. Whether or not it’s ultimately real, we need to do the best we can with it.


1 It was of course obvious that Karl Marx was running a bizarre cult well within his lifetime, but no one ever pretended to be harder-headed Materialist than Karl Marx. And you have to hand it to him: He had the sheer brass balls to proclaim that his gassy sub-Hegelian spiritualism was nothing less than the only truly scientific world view. You know how modern American Leftists, who insist that men can have periods and can’t figure out their own pronouns, are always proclaiming themselves Science’s BFFs? Karl Marx started that.

2 (he said that the soul is somehow also a physical thing, which touches the body at the pineal gland)

Practical Instruction

Book One, the “thank yous,” contains a valuable picture of the kind of man Marcus would like to be, and that we should aspire to. Like this:

In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission.

The “father” he’s referring to here is his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius. This is Marcus’s description of how a public man should behave at the highest level.

I observed too his habit of careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation, and his persistency, and that he never stopped his investigation through being satisfied with appearances which first present themselves

This has to be at the top of the list for a modern Stoic. They’re lying to you, my friends. For “they” you can fill in pretty much any group you choose — the Media, certainly, but also your teachers. Even your parents. Your folks might not be doing it consciously, but they are. How many of us, for example, got our first taste of the red pill by realizing that everything Mom and Dad told us about girls was wrong?

And the things which conduce in any way to the commodity of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without arrogance and without excusing himself; so that when he had them, he enjoyed them without affectation, and when he had them not, he did not want them.

This is the antidote to the guilt the aforesaid Media, schools, etc. insist that you feel, particularly if you’re a White male. It’s true: Fate, the gods, blind luck, whatever, have given you inestimable advantages. Do not feel guilty about that. Be grateful! Use them “without affectation” while you have them, as they are the free gift of God. Don’t mourn them when they’re gone. But never, ever let them be taken from you.

He took a reasonable care of his body’s health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician’s art or of medicine or external applications.

Work out! Don’t do it because you’re trying to get girls, and don’t avoid it because that’s what “dude-bros” do. Your body, too, is one of those free gifts of God (fate, blind luck, whatever). You have an obligation to maintain it. Epictetus, the Roman Empire’s second-most-famous Stoic, talks a lot about regarding your body as a loan. God (fate, blind luck, whatever) can call in His marker at any time; you need to be ready to give it back in as good a shape as you borrowed it.

There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, nor, as one may say, anything carried to the sweating point; but he examined all things severally, as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently. And that might be applied to him which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul

A perfect and invincible soul. That’s our goal, gentlemen. How’s it going so far?

Political “Theory,” if Any?

In the comments below, Pickle Rick writes:

It’s really a measure of scale. These systems of government, whether the Greek polis or the Roman res publica were developed for the city-state, or maybe at largest a league or confederation like the Delian League. The systems broke down as Rome stretches its power beyond Latinium. Our own experience with a confederation, then a republic shows the same strains as a system developed for a country of 3.9 million and the East Coast now creaks along in a continent with 329 million “citizens”.

The old Roman formulation of Senātus Populusque Rōmānus couldn’t have any meaning to Goths crossing the Danube. Similarly, E pluribus unum was for Virginians and New Englanders named Washington and Adams, it means nothing to paper Americans.


There’s a upper limit on how large an ideal organization can get and still maintain its philosophical underpinnings.

It’s crucial here that we distinguish between a system of government and a theory of government.

Even though guys like Aristotle wrote treatises with titles like Politics, it’s hard to say that the ancients really had a “political philosophy.” Aristotle said that the purpose of the State was to encourage virtue, which — as always with Aristotle — means something like “to live like Athenians.” It’s hard to imagine him sparing a thought for a place like Pharaonic Egypt, but if you put a gun to his head he’d probably mutter something about how Egypt’s government was the best at helping Egyptians be Egyptian.

Even Plato’s famous Republic, you’ll recall, wasn’t about any government that could actually exist out in the real world. All that stuff about the Noble Lie, who-guards-the-guardians?, etc., was an attempt to answer the question: “What is Justice?” Plato got a good long look at affairs of state in his youth, coming to manhood as he did in the nastiest phase of the Peloponneisan War. It’s no wonder he retreated to the Realm of the Forms.

It’d take another 1500 years or so to arrive at a true political philosophy, based solely on abstract considerations. Leaving aside the question of whether Machiavelli counts as political philosophy, it’s clear that Thomas Hobbes set out the first truly systematic case for government based on pure principles. The State’s legitimacy, he said, is founded on self-evident principles of human behavior. Nobody could argue with that, but nobody could accept his conclusions, either… and there’s your past half-millennium of political thought in a nutshell.

When you come right down to it, the United States is the only enduring polity founded on abstract principles1…. but, as we’ve seen, it’s a seriously open question as to how universal those principles actually are. The tensions in the United States government were obvious from the first. Are the principles themselves wrong, or is it simply a matter of scale, as Pickle Rick suggests?

That’s a question for the political theorists. The systematizers of government have a much easier job, as they’re only concerned with the application of power. That’s why a guy like Carl Schmitt gets called a “legal theorist” rather than a “political philosopher,” though his writings are actually heavyweight political theory — he’s always looking at the real behavior of actually existing states.

The problem, then, for our purposes is deciding if Marcus’s personal beliefs should have had any impact on his performance as Emperor (whether or not they actually did have such an impact is a question for the archaeologists). If so, and if we want to be modern Stoics, we’ll have to accept, reject, or revise the theory accordingly.

1 The French only made it a few years before surrendering — heh heh — to Napoleon.

Ancient Populism

Continuing the discussion of “equal rights,” Deacon Blues argues:

Perhaps the Stoics plead for equal treatment of all under the law so that those who are capable of rational thought and learning philosophy are able to do so. Those who are not are likely not harmed by being treated as if they could.

This raises two interrelated points: The possibility of understanding, and the possibility of harm.

One of the biggest problems with ancient philosophy is their seeming obliviousness to what we’d probably call “cultural relativism.” I know, I know, that particular topic is one of the pillars of the Poz, but that’s what makes the Poz so seductive the first time you hear it — it’s sorta true, at least in its basic postulates.

No one can seriously deny that culture has a lot to do with human behavior. If an American baby from 2020 fell into a time machine and landed in a Viking crib in 820, that baby would grow up to be a Viking, right? “American-ness” isn’t some kind of racial essence, then; it’s a set of cultural practices and attitudes (same as “Viking-ness” — if the reverse happened, and a Viking baby fell into the time machine and ended up in 2020, he’d grow up to be an American).

The problem with this notion — that “American-ness,” “Viking-ness,” whatever, are (as the phrase goes) “social constructions” — is that it’s part of a larger species of specious argument the philosopher David Stove called “the Gem,” a.k.a. The Worst Argument in the World. Being a professional philosopher, Stove put it technically:

We can know things only

  • as they are related to us
  • under our forms of perception and understanding
  • insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes,

etc.

So,

we cannot know things as they are in themselves.

All this, Stove says, boils down to the tautology “we can only know what we can know,” because all that other stuff — relation to us, the forms of our understanding, our conceptual schemes, etc. — are just descriptions of what it is to know something. He illustrates the point quite nicely with oysters on the half shell:

We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of the possibility of being eaten.

Therefore,

We cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves.

Being “brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of the possibility of being eaten” is, of course, just a fancy way of saying “swallowing.” You can’t eat oysters without swallowing them… therefore, you can’t eat oysters “as they are in themselves.” Silly, right?

Except it’s not. This “argument” — and I am 100% serious about this — is the key to the Poz. It is the only “argument” they have ever produced, and it’s the intellectual equivalent of the atom bomb. Look around: You’re reading a blog with maybe five readers, while the Poz runs the rest of your life for you. QED.

To see how it won, let’s circle back to our example of the baby in the time machine. Not even the hardest-headed “race realist” among us would, I hope, argue against the notion that the “American” baby who fell into the time machine would grow up thinking he’s a Viking. He’d dress like a Viking, eat like a Viking, act like a Viking, etc. In his own mind, anyway, he’s a Viking. Therefore — all together now — “Viking-ness is just a social construction.”

Congratulations, you’ve just passed the midterm for every freshman Humanities course at any college in America. But it’s wrong. How about this: What if the baby who fell into the time machine was lactose-intolerant, or had one of those weird allergies kids these days all seem to have? In that case, he wouldn’t grow up to be a Viking, because he wouldn’t grow up to be anything. The Viking diet is a cultural practice, to be sure, but a fundamental one, a necessary-to-life one — eat like we do, or die.

Some cultural practices, then, have a genetic base. Most of the ancients recognized this (though, of course, they lacked the word “genetics”). Since we’re working our way back to Marcus Aurelius, consider the Romans. The Roman legionary wasn’t the peak of physical perfection. Lots of his adversaries were bigger, stronger, hardier. But the legionary’s superiority wasn’t just his discipline, either, since lots of Rome’s enemies fought Roman-style. Mithridates, for instance, not to mention the indistinguishable-from-Roman “allies” of the Social War

A Roman would no doubt explain this religiously — “a Roman is one who is favored by Roma” — but if we time-warped a legionary in here and sat him down for a chat, we’d pretty quickly come to the understanding that Romans have a different essence. Romans are Romans and other people aren’t, even if, as with the “allies,” they’re all-but-indistinguishable from real Romans. Nurture and nature.

The problem with this, of course, is that it brings us back to our previous discussion of the “genetic” (“essential,” whatever) difference in cultural practices. Just as someone who’s lactose-intolerant can’t be a Viking, no matter how good he is at pillaging villages or how awesome he looks in one of those horned helmets, so barbarians can’t be Romans, no matter how hard they try. That’s what “barbarian” means. It’s not what you do, it’s what you are

Unless you’re a Stoic, it seems. When Aristotle philosophized about “politics,” he wasn’t talking about the ideal form of human organization. He meant the ideal form of Greek organization, and probably the ideal form of Athenian organization (ol’ Aristotle never got over the fact that he was Macedonian by birth). The barbarians simply didn’t figure into it, because they weren’t capable of living in a polis. The Stoics, on the other hand, seemed committed to the idea of a universal nature.

Which wouldn’t be a problem in a Greek polis, since they were far away from the barbarians. For a Roman Emperor, though, the idea of a universal human nature could be very harmful. What if Marcus had attempted to convert the barbarians?

Equal Rights? Ctd.

Continuing the discussion from below, there’s another possibility: Maybe Marcus really does mean “equal rights for all.” It’s a very modern-sounding notion; it would’ve been radical indeed in the ancient world. But then again, Stoicism was in many ways a radical creed.

Ancient thinkers had a very HBD-ish view of life. When someone like Aristotle talks about “man” as “the rational animal,” he most definitely does NOT mean that all human beings are always rational. Even we Postmoderns, who have had critical thinking beaten out of us by 16+ years of “education,” can see that’s ludicrous. Even the best of us aren’t always rational, and some of us never are — babies, for instance.

Aristotle would take it much further, though. We’d say that while babies aren’t rational now, they will be once their brains develop (“displaying some capacity to reason” being a pretty good dividing line between “baby” and “toddler;” ask any parent). Aristotle wouldn’t. Putting it crudely but not unfairly, when Aristotle says “man” he means, at minimum, free-born Greek men… and if you put a gun to his head, he’d probably admit that he means “free-born Athenian men of sufficient social status.” Women, slaves, barbarians (meaning, effectively, “non-Greeks”)… none of them are rational animals either, because they can’t or won’t discipline themselves enough to use whatever capacity for rationality they have.

In short — again, crudely but not unfairly — Aristotle maintained that there are entire classes of people who must be ruled by the better sort in order for society to function. Letting women, slaves, etc. participate in political life would be like being ruled by teenagers — they might dimly be able to sense the right thing to do, but their judgment would always be swamped by their appetites.

The idea of “natural aristocracy” (or whatever you want to call it) is a problem for the Stoics, though, as they really do seem to have maintained a version of “all men are created equal” — namely, that all men are at least theoretically capable of apprehending the truths of philosophy. After all, the most famous exponent of Stoicism in Marcus’s day was Epictetus, a former slave who was born into slavery. Which would strongly suggest that there’s no “natural” political science — though some men always end up ruling over other men, this isn’t necessarily inherent in the nature of either the rulers or the ruled. It might just be social convention, inertia, bad luck…

Not that this would’ve influenced Marcus’s rule in any direct way. Philosophy was a rich man’s pursuit anyway, and however dedicated he personally might’ve been to the philosophical life, Aurelius had an empire to run. The best he could do was create “endowed chairs” for the four major schools of philosophy in Athens.

It’s interesting for our purposes, though, because we have to wrestle with full-on populism. Looking around, it’s increasingly hard to maintain, Stoic-style, that all men are capable of apprehending the truths of Philosophy. Just watch tv for a few minutes, and you’ll start to wonder if Aristotle wasn’t being way too generous. Were the Stoics wrong? And if so, is this fatal for the Stoic project as a whole?

Equal Rights for All?

Returning to Book One, we find a striking passage:

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice… and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed;

All this from a Roman Emperor?

Here’s where context becomes crucial, if we’re to avoid concluding that Marcus was the grossest of hypocrites.1

We can’t let him off the hook by claiming that he actually had a whole list of implied qualifications and exceptions to his statement, a la Jefferson’s “all men are created equal,” because at least Jefferson said “all men.” Marcus says all, full stop.

Perhaps we can blame the translator? Marcus sounds surprisingly SJW-ish here, and given what we know about some of his fairly close successors…. but no, our translator, George Long (1800-1879), was Victorian to the bone. A liberal-ish Victorian, to be sure — he was a big wheel in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — but that’s a far cry from our modern purple-haired nose-ringers. Whatever the original Greek2 was, “equal rights” is surely an in-the-ballpark translation.

The non-hypocritical answer goes back to Stoic ontology (the study of being). You’ll recall that the Stoics are Materialists.3 All Materialists have a problem with free will, since nothing-but-material explanations of the universe seem to be entirely deterministic, too.

How can “I” choose one word over another while writing this sentence? Everything involved is just a chemical process, right? Even if “I” choose to type the string of letters “xerweljkasdf” to illustrate “my” point, who is the “I” that’s doing the choosing? If Materialism is correct, and we could somehow find the exact chemical firing sequence in the nerves that produced the string of letters “xerweljkasdf,” then reproducing that exact chemical firing sequence in “your” brain would cause “you” to type them, too.

To put it crudely but not unfairly, the Materialist dilemma is this: Either atoms collide randomly in the void, or they don’t. If they do, then all philosophy — hell, life itself — is inherently pointless, because it’s all just random. If they don’t — if the atoms falling through the void collide in regular, predictable ways — then those collisions determine everything, which also renders life pointless. Life’s in the choosing, isn’t it? What is love, for instance, in a world of nothing but chemical reactions colliding?4

The Stoics never really resolved this dilemma, as far as I know — nor have any other Materialists — but like all Materialists they seemed to have fudged it with some version of “You’re free to assent to doing the thing you were fated to do anyway.” The fact is, though, this dodge actually kinda works in Stoicism, because they put such emphasis on “assent.” In a very real way, that’s the linchpin of their world: Assent. The Stoics are concerned with what is really real, and they set the bar extremely high (we’ll discuss Stoic epistemology — their theory of knowledge — another time).

In that context, “equal rights for all” means something like “everyone is equally free to assent to whichever of the truths of philosophy they can uncover.” Given that, “freedom of speech” means “you’re free to talk to philosophers, and they’re free to respond, about those truths.”

This probably seems like weak sauce, but look: This is the very first book of the Meditations. I assume that y’all are following along, maybe even reading ahead. As I’m primarily writing this for the younger folks who never got anything close to this in their “educations” (no matter how prestigious or expensive the “school” they attended), it’s important to head obvious objections off at the pass. So trust me, y’all:

Marcus’s “freedom” is definitely not the namby-pamby “do your own thing, man” bullshit of Senescent America.


1 It’s quite possible that Marcus is a big hypocrite, of course. Read biographies of the man, and judge for yourself.

2 Like all high-class Romans of his day, Marcus was fluent in Greek, and as Greek was the language of philosophy, the Meditations were composed in that language, not Latin.

3 Capitalized for the benefit of younger / less philosophically learned readers. There’s no one philosophy you could call “Materialism.” Rather, it’s the idea that there’s nothing but physical nature — no soul, no afterlife, no world-spirit, no nothing. Everything in a Materialist’s world must be the result of some physical process taking place on this plane of existence.

4 In his famous Tusculanae Disputationes,Cicero suggests that the answer is: “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.” (Book 3, section 2).

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