Jon Meacham on Marcus Aurelius

While I was researching my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I stumbled across a Newsweek article about Marcus Aurelius, from 2010, written by author and political commentator Jon Meacham.  Meacham won a Pulitzer prize in 2009 for his biography of US president Andrew Jackson.

Meacham’s article, A Case for Optimistic Stoicism, was inspired by the attempted Al Qaeda bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was bound from Amsterdam to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in the US.  I wanted to write a little about this article because I think it deserves to be read and because it seems to me that Meacham has actually understood the essence of Stoicism better than many others who have attempted to write about it.  Though he’s not a scholar of this particular subject he clearly “gets it” and the Stoic doctrine he gets is one that’s really quite central to the whole philosophy.

Meacham was reading the Gregory Hays translation of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius when he heard about the attack.  He was immediately struck by the relevance of Marcus’ Stoic reflections as America once again faced the renewed threat of terrorism.  In particular, the following words resonated with him at that moment:

If you’ve seen the present then you’ve seen everything—as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever.  The same substance, the same form. All of it.

Meacham sounded jaded by the “mindlessly divided” nature of the political response to the incident.  The same old finger-pointing and political point-scoring.  Politicians using a threat as an opportunity to squabble among themselves rather than addressing the real issues at stake.

He reasoned that threat is always present, lurking somewhere during times of apparent peace.  Americans were deluding themselves to think otherwise.  Crises are inevitable.  With The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his hands, Meacham could only wish that instead of the embarrassing display of Democrats and Republicans scrambling to opportunistically exploit the event Americans should learn, like the Roman emperor, to embrace a philosophy of optimistic Stoicism.

Meacham understands Marcus Aurelius.  He says that a proper grasp of the Stoic philosophy of The Meditations would require adopting a world view which calmly accepts the stubborn intransigence of human affairs, and their darker side, but also retains a hopeful sense of their possibilities.  Not just Stoic acceptance of a passive kind, as people sometimes assume, but an attitude of hopeful and determined action.  True Stoics balance resignation and calm realism, the Stoic Discipline of Desire, with relentless idealism and a serious commitment to moral principles, the Discipline of Action.  That paradox is the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.  Stoics quietly accept life’s misfortunes without complaint but they nevertheless remain committed to doing good, for the common welfare of mankind.

As Meacham notes, Marcus Aurelius wrote that human beings were made to help one another – a theme that he returns to many times throughout The Meditations.  The wise man, Marcus says, can be recognized by the affection he exhibits toward his neighbours, and through his humility and truthfulness.  The only true good is virtue, which leads to universally admired character traits such as justice, self-control, courage, and freedom.  The only true evil is vice, the opposite frame of mind.

Meacham also spots the Roman emperor’s striking remark that we cannot go around expecting to achieve Plato’s ideal republic in political life – it’s unrealistic to demand that we live in a Utopia.  Nevertheless, says Marcus, rather than simply abandoning our ideals – like so many people do when they become disillusioned with modern politics –the Stoics advise us to work toward justice and our political ideals more patiently.  We should accept the imperfections around us while maintaining our goal of making progress toward something far better, even if it’s only one small step at a time.  Indeed, Marcus says that this Stoic willingness to keep working steadily toward a beautiful ideal while nevertheless accepting reality warts and all, is the secret of fulfilment in human life.

Meacham realized as he watched the news that day that despite the duty of government to strive for its people’s safety, America was facing the horrifying reality of a war without end against enemies who could appear anywhere:

No matter how many camps we blow up, no matter how many operatives we kill or imprison, and certainly no matter how much screening we do at airports, we will never render America totally safe. No matter. We must press forward on all fronts. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. […] As Marcus Aurelius would understand, a never-ending war is not a war we should not fight: it is just a war that never ends. The sooner we accept this, the better.

That’s what I would simply describe as a philosophical attitude toward the stark reality of terrorism.  One type of folly denies the reality of these threats and buries its head in the sand.  Another type of folly accepts them but exaggerates our inability to cope and throws its arms up in the air in despair.  What people find so difficult about Stoicism is that it does neither of these foolish things.  Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius could walk and chew gum.  They could calmly accept adversity while nevertheless patiently fighting back against it, even though the odds seemed stacked against them or the battle seemed interminable.  Life, as Marcus said, is warfare.  It never ends.  The good man accepts this, without complaint, and he remains at his post anyway, standing guard against the enemy.

In 1712, Thomas Addison wrote a play called Cato, a Tragedy, which celebrated the great Roman Stoic hero, Cato of Utica.  It contains many Stoic themes including the striking lines:

Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius – we’ll deserve it.

George Washington was reputedly so inspired by this play that he had it staged for his army camped at Valley Forge.  That was the philosophy he felt they needed to inspire them.  We don’t give up just because we’re facing an overwhelming threat.  The goal of life isn’t to win, because that’s not always up to us, but rather to deserve to win, something eminently under our control.  We can be victorious over fortune in that respect, right now, even when engaged in a war without end.  As soon as we turn our back on the true goal, though, we’ve already lost everything for which it’s worth putting up a fight in the first place.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

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