Let’s take this week of Saturnalia to finish up our readings of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’ll tackle book XI today and book XII on Thursday. Not that either book has anything to do with the festivities (though Seneca wrote a letter to Lucilius about it).
Somewhat uncharacteristically, Marcus criticizes a group of people, the Christians, which he mentions a few other times throughout the Meditations. It is within a passage (#3) where he discusses one’s readiness to die:
“What a great soul is that which is ready, at any requisite moment, to be separated from the body and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist. But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.”
More positively, one can use this quote as further evidence, if any were needed, that the Stoics approved of, but certainly didn’t take lightly, the possibility of suicide.
At #8 Marcus deploys a metaphor to remind himself of the Stoic idea that human beings are not meant to live in isolation, but always as an integral part of a society: “A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So, too, a man, when he is separated from another man, has fallen off from the whole social community.” And falling off the social community is against nature, to use Stoic lingo, and so it undermines eudaimonia.
One of the things that it means for humans to be part of an organic whole is explained at #13: “Shall any man hate me? That will be his affair. But I will be mild and benevolent toward every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.” And he continues (#18): “consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a man like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults.”
The whole section 18 of book XI is interesting because it is a list of reminders to oneself of how to react when someone offends you. Here is a good essay on the entire section over at The Immoderate Stoic.
Marcus must have been in the mood for lists, because in the following section he makes himself one of “aberrations of the superior quality” (meaning the ability to make rational decisions). They are: “this thought is not necessary; this tends to destroy social union; this which you are going to say comes not from the real thoughts … the fourth is when you shall reproach yourself for anything.” Together, they make for a nice reminder that Stoics shouldn’t judge anyone, including themselves (Marcus’ slip above about the Christians notwithstanding…), that they should focus on what matters, and that what matters is a harmonious social life.
A favorite passages of mine comes at #27, and is the source for one of Modern Stoicism’s accepted meditations (even though the Stoics themselves actually adopted it from the Pythagoreans, according to Marcus and other sources): “The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies that continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star.” “There is no veil over a star,” who said Marcus couldn’t be poetic? At any rate, this is in fact something that I practice from time to time, and which I do find one of the most calming of contemplations.
Should One Be Stoic With Fanatics?
Under Roman Law, private citizens could launch a CRIMINAL lawsuit (not just a civilian lawsuit, as presently the case). Such criminal actions were launched against a handful of Christians during Marcus Aurelius’ reign. Six were executed in Rome (during a twenty year reign).
One of them was a centurion, and an author. Another was Justin Martyr, who was brought to Rome from the Middle East, and tried. This is from the minutes of the trial:
“The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is OUR DESIRE, TO BE TORTURED for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”
Justin Martyr invented the theory that reverence for the LOGOS was actually reverence for the Christian god, so Plato, Aristotle, etc. were truly Christian, and thus Christianism existed before Chris…
However, the claim that people want to be tortured, is most troubling: if one will do with others as if with oneself, does that mean one want to torture others? Actually Chris expected this to happen (Luke)
Justin Martyr was executed around 165 CE. However, a decade later or so, Marcus Aurelius stopped the prosecution of Christians, under the penalty of death. This came from the following incident, which has several versions. Here it is, supposedly in a letter of Marcus Emperor to the Roman Senate:
…”For during five days we had got no water, because there was none; for we were in the heart of Germany, and in the enemy’s territory. And simultaneously with their casting themselves on the ground, and praying to God (a God of whom I am ignorant), water poured from heaven, upon us most refreshingly cool, but upon the enemies of Rome a withering1920 hail. And immediately we recognised the presence of God following on the prayer-a God unconquerable and indestructible. Founding upon this, then, let us pardon such as are Christians, lest they pray for and obtain such a weapon against ourselves. And I counsel that no such person be accused on the ground of his being a Christian. But if any one be found laying to the charge of a Christian that he is a Christian, I desire that it be made manifest that he who is accused as a Christian, and acknowledges that he is one, is accused of nothing else than only this, that he is a Christian; but that he who arraigns him be burned alive. And I further desire, that he who is entrusted with the government of the province shall not compel the Christian, who confesses and certifies such a matter, to retract; neither shall he commit him. And I desire that these things be confirmed by a decree of the Senate. And I command this my edict to be published in the Forum of Trajan, in order that it may be read.”
In the end, Christianism was disastrous for Rome, 190 years later: libraries were destroyed, and a “war against the philosophers” engaged. The empire sank into incompetence and fanaticism.
Patrice, interesting. Do you have sources for those quotations? I’d like to follow up.
Obviously, I don’t commend torture, beheading or burning people alive, for whatever reason. But yes, the Christians certainly were fundamentalist zealots, and they showed the world what they were capable of during the Middle Ages.
As for the Fall of Rome, the idea that it was connected to Christianity, advanced in the classic by Gibbon, no longer has favor among historians. I’m looking forward to reading the new SPQR, which summarizes in an accessible way the most recent scholarship on that and many other aspects of Roman history.
Dear Massimo: New “SPQR”?? Is there a new book? I want to read it.
I make my own opinion about what ailed Rome (and why we are still Romans!) I keep appraised of the latest archeology (which differ wildly from the classical views of pure historians, some of them loud Christian apologists). I read original texts directly: I had to put to work all these years studying Latin.
My view that Christianism was the proximal cause of the fall of the empire is nuanced: it is not the fundamental cause (as Gibbons boldly thought). The fundamental cause is what brought theocratic Christianism. The fundamental cause is clear, reading the Gracchi, around 140 CE.
The fundamental cause of Rome’s degeneracy, and what made the Republic moribund, is the rise of plutocracy, culminating in nasty laws with long term consequences, passed by 140 BCE (five centuries before the Decline and Fall was fully engaged). Plutocracy led to fascism, which brought theocracy (as early as Domitian, circa 80 CE. and then Emperor Julian himself wrote plenty on the subject, and was himself nuanced (maybe all too nuanced).
Julian’s successor, the general Jovian (emperor 363-364) allowed the destruction of libraries by Christians, and things quickly got much worse, as a quick succession of zealot Christian emperors, and co-emperors, Valentinian, his brother Valens, and their son and nephew Gratian, who nominated zealot Christian general Theodosius I co-emperor, established the rule of insane stupidity, and intellectual fascism. The successions were amicable and orderly; however those Christian military leaders besides were disconnected from the Roman Senate(s), where the uncooperative wealth was.
Stupidity and Christianism brought not just to Rome an Islamist State like tyranny, but also consequential idiotic battle management (see Adrianopolis with emperor Valens doing his best to have the Goths defeat the Romans), and astounding strategy.
Not only were the Franks put in charge of defense, in a policy which lasted two centuries: that was OK, as the Franks wanted to re-establish secular rule. The Goths were also brought in (while antagonizing them!)… And even the Huns (Who sieged Toulouse, capital of the Goths, as allies of the Roman army!)
These were very complex times. We are heading the same way. For the Republic to survive, to exactly establish how the Roman State came to be replaced by the Franko-Roman state, after the near-extinction of civilization, is of the highest importance.
you make several good points, but I don’t buy your overall account of the causes of the decline of Rome. I’ll get back to this once I will read the SPQR book I mentioned above, by historian Mary Beard. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/SPQR-History-Ancient-Mary-Beard-ebook/dp/B0108U7IHO/