“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
When Rob died, I was reading the Stoics and Dante's Inferno. This was not planned. It was an accident of my reading lists, although my reading of the former works at that critical time smacked a bit of divine superintendence to me. It was, for me, the right words delivered at the right moment. The Stoics have helped me through a difficult time (although, to reveal a chink in my armor and have a moment of sincerity on this too too public blog, I should admit that I say "through" with a hint of ironic, self-deprecating cynicism) with a stipulation. I'll come back to my closing thoughts on my Stoical sojourn in a moment. First, I need to talk a bit about this final Stoic work in the Harvard Classics series, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the emperor of Rome from the year of our Lord 161 until his death in 180. He was one of the better Roman Emperors, especially at that time, although one of the dark marks in his otherwise fine record is that he did persecute the early Christians for a time. This was apparently buckling to popular opinion on his part. This is not one of the more important details of his biography as he was hardly a Nero, but it may be worth noting that scholars have apparently tried to rescue Marcus Aurelius from this black spot on his record. George Long (the translator), in an essay following the text, mentions a document that has surfaced which claims to have been written by Aurelius begging the Senate to not persecute the Christians. Long says it's a rather ham-fisted forgery and it is unlikely that Aurelius put that much thought into the matter at all.
The saddest part of the text is that it is a book written for one seeking to live a virtuous life, full of the wisdom gained by the insightful ruler, apparently for the amelioration of his son, Commodus. Commodus was one of the bad emperors. It was Pax Romana under Aurelius, but Commodus threw a spanner right into those works. In the case of this book, I envision a scene much like the claim of old Bosie Douglas upon receipt of Wilde's De Profundis that he threw it into the fire unread.
I got slightly less out of Aurelius than I did from the excellent Epictetus, partially because Aurelius was a little more obscure and Long admittedly tried to preserve Aurelius' innocence of rhetorical skill. This lead to some confusing passages. But I still found it to be an excellent work. Aurelius camps long on contentment which, as a Christian myself, I find rather lacking without the focus on glorifying God. Aurelius has a great deal of that as well, although he and I would be speaking of different Gods. However, his focus on chucking attachments of pain and pleasure put me in mind of the areas in which Buddhism and Christianity meet in ways I find helpful.
I would be remiss if I didn't speak on the struggle that ensued for me from the Stoic presentation of contentment. I found it a bit hollow and soon realized why. It stems back to the old question "Is it possible to have morality without God?" A question to which my personal answer, at least in my experience in my own life, is "no." You see, Aurelius' instructions for a life of contentment are all well and good. If followed as prescribed they should effect the desired outcome. But that's just it. For me (and, I daresay, for Commodus), it lacked the reasoning as to why one should desire to, as it were, "keep it on the rails." Why does it matter to live a life of contentment over one of gross hedonism? Why, even, is it preferable to alive or dead? In the case of the Harvard Classics series, one supposes that its place in the progression, following Socrates' fairly solid case for living a virtuous life for the sake of living a virtuous life, it offers some keen tools. However, taken on its own, it's a bit like having a detailed and easy to follow recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, but having no idea how to eat.
Fortunately, I have an answer which causes all of the pieces to fall into place and makes contentment a very valuable lesson indeed. The answer I have is the focus of a life toward God and the outworkings that stem from that focus.
However, even more helpful in this temporal life, I thought, was his focus on social justice. He brought forth concepts like: what is bad for the hive is bad for the bee. He also appeals to our nature in doing what is set before us, just as a fig tree produces figs, do what you are to do.
Also, he is a bit starkly honest in admitting that life is not all about happiness and good times. I remember when I was a child having a reaction at a certain part of a popular children's film. It was the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and there was a line that the Oompa-Loompas sing in one of their finger-wagging songs, after having dispensed their advice concerning the chapter of the story that had just closed, along the lines of "you will live in happiness too, like the Oompa-Loompas doompity-do." I remember thinking that they didn't strike me as being particularly happy-seeming. They seemed rather stern and, as it were, stoic. But age brings perspective and now I see that there is wisdom in the house of mourning. So often I've found that living at the frequency of levity makes the fall much further when tragedy inevitably strikes. Also, if one maintains a level of gravitas in one's character, one is more accessible to those who need someone in times of trouble.
Aurelius and the rest of the Stoics are often criticized on this point, but then, we do live in a remarkably silly culture. I personally think that there is an honesty there that many are uncomfortable with. We have no guarantee of happiness and certainly none of longevity. Aurelius' advice is, in the most simple terms, "be content regardless." If you can find contentment in times of struggle, you can tap into it at any time. Again, I find the divorce from my spiritual walk unhelpful, but remarrying the two I've found this to be a great help to me, a great comfort during a great trial.
In the case of Rob, I've been left holding a bag full of questions. Why him and not me? Why now? What was that all about? What do I do for the remainder of my life without being able to talk to him? The Stoics don't answer those questions directly because no one can. Either there is no answer or it's not for us to know. But now I feel a bit more equipped to be content in my circumstances. Now it's just a matter of employing those tools at the necessary moment instead of wallowing in discontent and worry.