Some Thoughts on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius; I mean, why not take Hannibal Lecter’s advice? I won’t pretend that I am getting every nuance, because I am sure I’m not. My knowledge of the historical context is scanty and my knowledge of the Latin/Greek classics is Not Good. Which is why I am reading him. I’d like to know more.
I have a problem with him.
It’s the same problem I have with Seneca, so it’s a problem I imagine I would have with stoicism in general were I better read in it. That problem is that it asks you to be a mineral when you are, in fact, an animal.
You can’t take someone with thoughts, dreams, and desires burning inside them and tell them to just be happy with what they have, that whatever station they have is what nature fitted them for. That is a good way to make people feel unhappy, unfulfilled. You cannot look at the lack of fulfilment and ask them if they have tried limiting their horizons in an attempt to feel fulfilled. Is Aurelius telling us that we’ll never be fulfilled, so what we already have will do as well as anything? I think that’s the message, but it rings hollow coming from a king.
And the fact that it’s coming from a king is significant. I don’t know enough about the man to draw any well-reasoned historical parallels, but I will say that it has always been in the interests of a ruling class to make sure that the classes below them are happy with what they have. Who wants the working classes getting ideas above their station? Why not promote a philosophy that suggests that what you have is good enough, that if you’re enduring it, it isn’t unendurable?
In that sense, I can see why this philosophy is comforting. If I was suffering under circumstances that were truly out of my control, if there was nothing I could do about it, if I had to endure it regardless, then I might find Aurelius useful. But I suspect that we are asked to endure a lot more than we really need to.