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The one-time Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius talks with a modern-day Stoic about moderation, Zbigniew ...
2021-01-23 09:00:00

Moderation Marcus
An Interview with Marcus Aurelius

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Moderation Marcus
Moderation Marcus

Piotr Stankiewicz talks with Marcus Aurelius – a Roman emperor who preferred being a philosopher and who died 1840 years ago – about the state of today’s world.

Read in 13 minutes

Piotr Stankiewicz: Your Imperial Majesty was mistaken.

Marcus Aurelius: Just one moment, heathen! That’s how you address the Caesar??!

Forgive me, Your Imperial Majesty, but…

[silencing Stankiewicz with a gesture, then stopping to think] You get up to some strange stuff here in the future. Well, more than a little has changed since my times. During the Empire nobody started interviews that way. O tempora, o mores.

Of course, lots of things have been democratized. Thanks in large part to the Stoic ideas of equality, because...

Alright, alright. I see that in your times one can address an emperor impudently, but let’s at least learn some logic. Let’s take things in order. Where did I make this alleged mistake?

Your Imperial Majesty wrote that you’d be forgotten.

Did I really?

It’s all here in black and white. Here, I have it on paper. Meditations, VII. 21. “A little while and thou wilt have forgotten everything, a little while and everything will have forgotten thee.”

Meditations! So it actually did get published… and that’s the title you gave it! This is all very interesting. And, here you are, ‘paper’ – a perfectly ingenious invention. But you see what it leads to: you write something, and 18 centuries later people will still be picking nits.

And here Your Imperial Majesty is mistaken. After those 18 centuries, the Meditations are thought to be one of the most important books in history. They’re read by adepts in philosophy, but also by the broader public, who look for support and comfort in them. Your Imperial Majesty’s work has even been called an “eternal gospel”, which will never grow old.

After so many years, I suppose I can admit that I never cared about all this caesaring about, splendours, responsibility and rituals. Meanwhile, of course, I always considered myself something of a philosopher. What remains is to be thoroughly, unstoically pleased that somebody acknowledged – no, that it was some use to somebody. This kind of recognition, as usual, comes too late. I also wrote about that, and at least there I wasn’t mistaken. And what’s this ‘eternal gospel’ stuff all about?

[flustered] Well, the gospels are the stories about Christ. They’ve lasted 2000 years, so it’s a metaphor for endurance and influence on people.

Nothing lasts forever, I wrote that. That’s first of all. And second: those misbegotten Christians are still around?

I don’t want to cause Your Imperial Majesty concern, but the facts are that for more than a millennium, Christianity has been the totally dominant structure in our part of the world. And it still is today, though by now it’s weaker and not so free from competition as it once was.

[pondering] Well, we tried to eradicate this sect, but as you can see, we didn’t manage. That’s just how it goes. The decision and the choice of direction are up to us. But whether you manage to carry these actions to their conclusion – that’s a different question. And tell me, how are the Stoics doing in all this?

It’s hard to summarize two millennia in a couple of sentences. The Christians started out in the catacombs or other underground spaces, and Stoicism was the philosophy of the Caesars. Then the situation reversed, and it was Christianity that became the official ideology, and Stoicism descended to the intellectual underground. The Christians said God is separate from the world, the soul is non-material, and salvation comes only after death. Meaning many things are the opposite of Stoicism. And that’s why we were on the defensive. Fortunately, a while back we started to free ourselves from this, and the last quarter century has seen the blossoming of a new Stoicism.

New?

Yes. There are many smaller currents in the broad current of Stoicism. A New Stoicism is the title of a 1998 book by Professor Lawrence Becker; I’m sort of a disciple of his. The professor, well, two years ago he was absorbed by the First Principle, whatever it may be. And what I do, I’d call Reformed Stoicism.

Reformed Stoicism! Respect. That is, I don’t respect it, because I was an orthodox Stoic, but I respect it as an idea.

As we say in our times: you have to change a lot of details for the essence to stay the same. Lots of things in Stoicism are read differently today, precisely for the message to stay current.

Just like in my day. Our school was never – and I’m happy that today it isn’t – a closed teaching, where you repeat the words of the master, not adding anything to them, and sometimes not even understanding them. And in general if you don’t develop a philosophy or a tradition, if you don’t interpret it, it withers. I also saw it that way, so maybe I’m not so orthodox after all. Orthodoxy, you see, depends on your point of view.

Yes, of course. After all, reformers of all countries and eras need the orthodox, to have somebody to cut themselves off from. And the orthodox need reformers, to have somebody to condemn.

It’s good that at least they talk to each other. And I hope this conversation will make both sides a little wiser.

We are talking.

Yes. But let’s take a short break.

A break. Marcus Aurelius takes some opium, I check messages on my phone.

And now may I ask a question?

Please, go ahead.

What is that thing in your hands?

It’s a long story… basically, it’s a telephone. If I have one of these devices, then at any moment I can talk with another person who also has one. And today almost everybody has one.

Ha! So I was right that everything is connected to everything else.

Yes. And even more so. The telephone is connected to something we call the internet. It’s a kind of network, where you can find pretty much all the information about everything and everyone. And part of the internet we call social media, where people write about what’s happening in their lives, what successes they’ve had and the failures they’ve suffered… of course, they write about the successes more often, much more often. And anyone can read it.

These inventions of yours are pretty slick, I can’t deny it. It’s nice to have access to all knowledge. But in practice doesn’t this change into one big comparison of everyone with everyone? In my time we were also strangled by this curse. The slave envies the master, the free citizen is aggrieved that he’s not a senator, the senator wants to be a caesar, and the caesar a philosopher. You’re always comparing yourself with others, of course, but in my day it was better to the degree that you compared yourself to the people you knew and saw around you. But you have the whole world before your eyes, all the time. Can reason bear this? You really live like this? How do you manage?

We don’t.

Exactly. This world of yours seems very fast, and most of all torn apart, unstable. Distraction crouches at every turn. When I look at you, I think that concentration alone requires almost a heroic effort. You’re holding that strange thing in your hand, supposedly checking something, but there’s something beeping here, lighting up there. And that’s your problem. In my time, we read books. And in reading it’s just you and the text. Nothing interrupts you.

And besides, and primarily, you wear yourself out terribly, carrying this whole world in your pocket. I mean, you’re constantly looking into everyone’s eyes. Humans are social beings, so comparison is somehow understandable, but not on this scale! Not with thousands of other people every day! You can’t live like that. It has to cause unhappiness – you can’t put one over on nature. I’d guess that your problem is a wave of depression and a plague of suicides.

Your Imperial Majesty is not mistaken, because – to use a great expression from our times – there’s studies about that, showing that since social media spread onto our smartphones, the rate of child and youth suicides has grown.

And what did you expect? Each of you is carrying a source of unhappiness in your pocket.

Look at it like this. In many matters, nature itself points us toward the road to moderation. You can’t just keep on eating. Even the greatest glutton reaches a point where they won’t be able to eat more. A drunk is the same: they can’t drink forever, either on a single evening or over their whole life, because their body won’t allow it. There are certain natural boundaries. Even playing dice is the same. Here the limitation is the contents of your pocket, which are always finite. Maybe with the exception of the caesar, though I didn’t have these particular problems.

One way or the other, nature itself imposes limitations, which somehow doom us to moderation. A wise person obeys them – or actually knows how to hear these hints from nature – before they have a painful encounter with them. They don’t have to drink in excess, or lose a fortune at cards. They know moderation a lot sooner. That’s what a reasonable mind consists in: seeing this path in advance.

Nature itself whispers that we should stop. But that thing you’re holding in your hand is just begging to be used against nature. You can look at the entire world forever – you’ll never come to the end.

What does Your Imperial Majesty recommend?

I understand that today it’s fashionable to reach back to ‘the wisdom’ of the ancient philosophers. And by the way – seriously, we’re ancient? For me, Chrysippus was an ancient! And you seek comfort and support there. But I’m not the one who made your times so hectic and bewildering. You did it yourselves. So, of course, read the Meditations – I can’t get used to that title – but you have to work out the answers yourself. I’m being a little bit spiteful, I know. But since you’re the ones who opened the bottomless box, or actually created the bottomless box, you must also make yourselves a ladder to get out of it. An ‘ancient author’ – if you must – will gladly reach out a hand, but won’t drag you out by your ears.

Well Marcus better hang up your peace / give me your hand across the dark.” Please excuse the association. That’s a Zbigniew Herbert poem, “To Marcus Aurelius”. I said that Your Imperial Majesty is written and commented about in our times.

How does it go?

Like this: “Good night Marcus put out the light / and shut the book For overhead / is raised a gold alarm of stars / heaven is talking some foreign tongue / this the barbarian cry of fear / your Latin cannot understand / Terror continuous dark terror...”

Hang on, didn’t the author know that I wrote in Greek?

I’ll accept that dig, but I won’t pass it on, because the author is dead. I’d bet he knew. Because the next lines – after Your Imperial Majesty deigned to interrupt – go “against the fragile human land / begins to beat / It’s winning Hear / its roar...” And in Polish, ‘begins’ rhymes with ‘Latin’. Poets’ imaginations can be limited by the requirements of rhyme.

But not by facts. Eh, poets… no wonder Plato wanted to banish them from the ideal state. And I don’t regret that I ditched all this rhetoric and poetry. If life is dust in the wind, then what is poetry? It must be dust on dust. It’s a waste… a waste to chatter, to wear out your tongue.

Changing the subject, Your Imperial Majesty said you didn’t have problems with gambling. And what problems did Your Imperial Majesty have?

Exactly, let’s get back to moderation: this advice is always timely. I had problems with my wife, who I could never get along with. Today I guess you’d call it ‘differences of character’: I was always attracted to philosophy, and she to… well, enough about that. Anyway, a philosopher is what I most wanted to be. But it turned out that I had to be an emperor. And so I did. It’s nice that you now believe I was one of the ‘good caesars’, but from my point of view it didn’t look that way. I did what I could, but, well, I didn’t feel good in this role.

We can see that in the Meditations.

Now you’re the one who’s being spiteful! At least you’re correct… and as for the problems, it took me many years to understand this whole Stoicism thing. It’s an open question whether I ever really comprehended it. When I was young I thought it was about exercising as hard as possible, eating little and simply; drinking only water; sleeping on the bare ground. A military lifestyle. I took it a little too far, and developed health problems. Only with time did I learn that the point wasn’t just strict asceticism, but reasonable moderation. The point is not to starve yourself, torment yourself and deny yourself everything. It’s to judiciously use what we can use.

Here I agree with you.

Finally!

I call it the ‘ascetic misinterpretation’ of Stoicism.

And that’s the proper path. The point is moderation. And somehow, moderation in moderation. The idea is not to be a slave of anything. No material thing, but also no person, no place, way of living, nothing. We can’t be enslaved either by habit or by avoidance. Wine, food, physical love: I shouldn’t be a prisoner of the fact that I absolutely have to drink, eat and love to excess… nor that I have to avoid all these things. Neither greed nor escape can master me. I have to be the master of the situation.

But yes, ‘moderation in moderation’. Mastering yourself and your aspirations doesn’t mean pathological control, always and everywhere. That’s neither possible nor necessary. The perfect Stoic simply doesn’t have problems with these things. Neither in one direction, nor the other. He doesn’t plunge desperate into them, nor does he desperately avoid them. He’s above them – and that’s precisely the point.

And now perhaps let’s talk about death.

OK, though there’s not a lot to talk about. I quite agree with Epicurus – hats off to my rival – that while we live, death doesn’t affect us, and when we die… it doesn’t affect us then, either. Because then nothing affects us; we’re gone.

Yes, this is an immortal formulation. But there are two things that don’t work. First, it’s not non-existence itself that we really fear. We fear the prospect of this non-existence, and the painful process of transition to the other side. Second, and most importantly, these Epicurean or Stoic ways to stop being afraid of your own death, these little life hacks – or death hacks – are a fight with an imaginary opponent. This is precisely the line of thinking that I argue for in Reformed Stoicism. Because in fact we don’t fear our own death. We fear the death of our loved ones.

So that’s why you’re a Reformed Stoic. But in principle, the goal is of course that you shouldn’t fear any death. Or anything at all. But I agree that this is hard to attain.

May I ask a more personal question? It’s a rare opportunity to ask. Your Imperial Majesty has a certain advantage over us – hmmm, is it really an advantage? – in that Your Imperial Majesty has already died. My readers and I are still alive. Will Your Imperial Majesty let us know what it’s like to die?

Well, it’s a unique experience. There are different kinds of deaths, but in the end they wind up the same way. I was actually aware that I was dying. You lie in your bed, you feel that you can do less and less, that – how to put it – you have less and less power over yourself, and in general that there’s less and less of you. Until in the end there comes this moment that you feel that’s it. And then you want to think to yourself Oh, I’m dying, but you don’t get around to thinking it, because before you do, you’re gone. I think that’s the most important. Death happens at the moment when you can’t manage to reflect, you can’t manage to stand to one side. And there’s nothing to fear.

And what comes after death? Can Your Imperial Majesty share this with our readers?

I can’t, because I don’t know. Like I said at the beginning: once you’re dead, you are no longer, so you won’t find out what comes after death.

Meaning what, that after death there’s nothing?

In a certain sense there’s nothing, and in another – you don’t know what there is. And because you don’t exist, the two merge into each other. A sort of paradox. Even if you die, you don’t learn what comes after death.

Meaning death is not just the final loss, because it takes away everything, as our school teaches, not just the final acceptance, because sooner or later you’ll come to terms with your own mortality – at the latest when you yourself die, this is also Stoicism – but also the final cognitive disappointment.

Unfortunately. But maybe that’s good. Then it doesn’t matter anymore. You don’t even have to come to terms with it, because you don’t register it. You’ll never become aware of anything again, and nothing will have meaning. And that’s very soothing.

I can’t wait… but let’s not end on such a gloomy note. I’d like to pass on one question from our readers, a bit lighter. What’s the correct pronunciation of Latin? Today there’s a dispute over this. Latin branched out into various new incarnations: French, Italian, Romanian and all that. It’s hard to reverse-engineer how they spoke in Rome; the native speakers died out before recording technology. And on the basis of text alone, everybody can pronounce it as they want – an American one way, a Pole another.

But what’s the problem? It’s simple. Based on the example of one of my predecessors, here you go. Listen carefully: “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur”. And so on. That’s the accent, you can hear it I suppose.

Really? Now it’s all clear! Our readers will be delighted. And now my final question. The most trivial one possible. What advice does Your Imperial Majesty have for us, the people of the 21st century?

Haven’t we already said it all? In my time this literary structure of repeating the first line didn’t exist, but I’d go back to where we started. You said I was mistaken, because I wasn’t forgotten. But I’m an exception. All my contemporaries are lost without a trace. And don’t be afraid that this awaits you. Whatever comes after death, whatever the First Principle is that absorbs us and the memory of us – there is great calm in it.


Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE):

Philosopher, Stoic, Roman emperor, author of the Meditations.

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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