I just wrapped up teaching Paradise Lost in my Brit Lit Survey, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s a work with which I find myself connecting, given the past year of my life. Another work I’ve been reading in the past few months is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. In their ways, both works pose the question of how we deal with a universe in which evil happens to people who don’t deserve it.
Ultimately, both writers tell us that some matters are above our pay grade. Remember, Job doesn’t get much of an answer from the whirlwind. Milton assures us that God will ultimately triumph, so much so that even our fall becomes a good, allowing God to redeem us. But he doesn’t really offer much in the way of getting through in the meantime.
That’s where, for me, Marcus Aurelius comes in. While most folks these days know him (if they know him at all) as “that guy Joaquin Phoenix smothers in Gladiator,” the old Roman is also probably the best known exponent of the philosophy known as stoicism. The Stoics say that there is virtue in living with accord with the universe, and carried to its fullest imaginable extent, a perfectly virtuous “sage” would be immune to life’s challenges.
While I don’t think we can achieve the level of a Stoic sage (nor did Samuel Johnson, who in Rasselas notes that philosophers may “teach like angels, but live like men”), I do believe Stoicism may provide an avenue, if an imperfect one, of making a way through an imperfect world.
The idea of endurance is an unpopular one these days, and that brings us to a new biography of Marcus Aurelius, written by Frank McLynn. In a review of McLynn’s work, Emily Colette Wilkinson observes:
[M]any modern readers, including McLynn, find the Stoic creed-that virtue is the only good and the source of happiness and that we should train ourselves to rise above emotional, physical, and material concerns-inhuman, even monstrous.
She notes that McLynn’s antipathy to Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy creates a tension in his work that rises at times to the level of a flaw. I don’t know this for myself — I haven’t read McLynn’s book. But what I find more interesting is an idea Wilkinson broaches later in her review — the idea that Stoicism, because it is antithetical to self-indulgence, may offer a refreshing countercurrent to the more Epicurean spirit of our age:
Have more orgasms, we’re told, wear spiffier outfits, watch another movie, speak more assertively, and the longings, the sense of something missing, will abate.
Stoicism says just the opposite: Stop indulging illusory physical and emotional longings and see your real happiness outside of yourself, your body, your emotions. As McLynn points out in his explanation of Marcus Aurelius’ intense popularity in the Victorian era and increasing neglect in our own, ours is a culture more interested in rights and entitlements than in duty, while Stoicism is only interested in duty, and duty understood to be synonymous with virtue and happiness. But it is a duty that liberates-a duty that teaches us to transcend the tyranny of the emotions and the body and that insists that contentment is ours for the having whenever we summon the strength to push away the things of the world that obscure it.
Now the people who know me know that I value rights — I believe that those rights are part of being human, and that as a society we ignore them at the peril of our souls. However, I believe, like Milton, that we have our choices in order that we may choose correctly. It is that freedom that makes doing one’s duty a good thing. That others fail in their duties does not relieve me of my own responsibilities, nor does the fact that I know I’m flawed and can’t ultimately fulfill them on my own. I’m supposed to make the right decisions.
This is much of the “inhumanity” that people like McLynn find repulsive. Fortunately, this is where Milton re-enters the picture for me. Because I know God will make things come out as He wishes, I can accept that my failures can be forgiven — there’s tolerance built into God’s design specs.
Without God, McLynn would be right — Stoicism would be unendurable. But with God, it becomes a means of dealing with life, even when life itself seems inhuman. And it seems to me that it may be an approach we need in our troubled world.