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What Can Be Learned From Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 100's, and ruled when the Roman Empire was still very powerful and controlled the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, stretching well into Asia Minor and up to England. It was the tradition at that time that the emperor's oldest son would succeed him as emperor, and that tradition was often fulfilled by a childless emperor, or one whose sons had all died young, by picking a successor and adopting him. This happened with Marcus, as it had with his adopted father and his father's adopted father. Marcus' biological father died young and he was raised until the age of sixteen by his biological grandfather, who was a wealthy senator and quite able to raise the boy with the best tutors available. After he was adopted by the emperor-to-be, this continued and thus Marcus had the best education possible in the empire, with esteemed Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers as his tutors.


Some time after Marcus became emperor, he began writing notes to himself about his philosophical knowledge and thoughts, and, as luck would have it, these notes happened to be preserved through the centuries and are now available in book form, known as 'Meditations'. Multiple editions have been printed over the last few centuries, along with translations into many languages from the original Greek. They contain an excellent, but very informal, description of the philosophy he accepted, which was a Roman version of Stoicism. This book has inspired many people, and might serve to inspire any new or improved religion. The points it makes have to be interpreted in the light of when and where Marcus lived, so that unconscious assumptions can be made explicit. These assumptions might differ from the unconscious assumptions we make today, 1900 years later and in a more technological society.


Marcus did not originate the points he wrote about; his job was to be the Roman emperor and philosophy was one tool he used to help himself make decisions, and in fact it was a very important tool. This particular philosophy was common in the Roman ruling classes, but it was certainly not the only school of philosophy that was common there. Two of the common schools had quite opposing viewpoints, Marcus' Stoicism and Epicureanism. Stoicism in Rome taught that individuals were not important, but what was important was 'logos', the order of the universe. Everyone had a role and being a good person meant following the requirements of your role. Furthermore, reason was to be kept as the dominant mode of action and interaction with others, and equanimity was one of the principal virtues. Marcus wrote much about ignoring pain and pleasure as much as possible, and instead concentrating on the principal goal of following nature and helping others. These are two of the main contentions of the philosophy of Stoicism.


The label 'philosophy' is probably best thought of as a misnomer: philosophy has no starting point; one must be provided by psychology. There is nothing in the universe to tell man his purpose, no matter whether it is a time of only beginnings of science and technology or a time when a grand scope of all of science is in view. Purpose comes from upbringing and the neural programming that a child receives before he is able to obstruct it.


Philosophy is a form of logic, with some science, or nature as Marcus would say, thrown in. Logic is a tool for starting with some assumptions or axioms or postulates or other beginnings and deriving some conclusions from them. These start points must come from somewhere, and in ancient times and some more modern times they come from the psychological impact of a child's rearing. What he heard at age four is what his truth is at age forty.


Culture provides a great amount of influence on the rearing of a child, both the culture that the family rearing the child experiences and the wider culture of the locale that the child lives in. This means that what a child learns from his parents is largely what his parents learned from their parents, and so on, with changes happening every generation, but not great ones. Over many generations, culture can change, and it usually does, but between two adjacent generations, there is not too much change within a certain class of society in a certain nation, or empire.


Stoicism, a philosophy from Greece, fit well into the culture of the upper classes in Imperial Rome. They had a culture which said the same things as the Greek originators did, who probably extracted it from the very similar culture in their city-state in Greece from earlier times, before Rome conquered them. This culture was one that allowed Rome to expand as it did, conquering much of the world around it, and ruling it for several centuries. That culture had the concept of duty, which meant in Roman Stoicism, doing what was ordered by superiors for the good of the state, and the strong connections between virtue and duty, between goodness and obedience, between choosing what was good for Rome and its people and obeying the rules of nature and the wishes of the gods, whoever they might be. Marcus believes that there are gods, but no soul that reincarnates or persists in any way after death. This is one of his main tenets, that everything in life is fleeting and therefore not worthy of great effort. He even foresees the end of his empire, but still feels that while it exists, it is his duty and that of all who obey him to work toward its benefit.  


Stoicism was appreciated by some fraction of the upper classes, perhaps most of them, and the ideas that emerged from it could propagate downward to the lower classes, meaning the population largely held the beliefs that duty to the empire was a moral good. Of course, epicureanism ate away at these beliefs, more and more as continued affluence permeated the upper classes and the even parts of the lower classes. The lessons that improved Buddhism can take from Marcus Aurelius and the Roman version of Stoicism involve the realization that selflessness among the leaders of the religion will preserve it, and the opposite is true as well. Marcus took some things from his upbringing to make him accept these beliefs as revealed truth, while they do nothing more than reveal what his earliest teaching consisted of.


One of them is quite curious. Marcus was raised to be emperor by those who understood the emperor to be the one who preserves the power and majesty of the empire, and as such, he was trained to plan. Planning tilts one's values toward the future, strongly among master planners, and so it was easy for him to make statements that since everything was temporary and ephemeral, it was worthless. This included his life, and Marcus often wrote how every individual's life is soon ended and soon forgotten, meaning it was without value. Such future-oriented valuation is not what an epicurean has; that would be present-oriented valuation, where something has value according to the feelings it generates in the individual making the valuation, at the present time or at most in the near future.


When Marcus wrote about the main goal of life being helping others, he did not mean what we might think of as helping others today. Marcus believed, as did other Stoics, that what had happened already was what nature intended, and so there was no point in mourning or pitying or even empathizing with others because of their state. Instead, Marcus believed that individuals had a natural state, and helping them meant two things: accepting Stoicism and reducing their emotionality, and, perhaps as part of Roman Stoicism, to fill the role they were born into or grew into, which includes service to the empire. There was nothing about freeing slaves, of which there were countless numbers in the Roman Empire. Instead, it was to help such a person accept their role in life, without emotionalizing and without aggression either passive or active, and to perform the requirements of that position. Neither was there anything in his writing about inverting the order of society or leveling social status. Instead, there was again the possibility of helping someone in a lower status to accept that and to live their life fulfilling the customary and exceptional tasks of such a position, as well as the individual could. Sympathy was certainly present and necessary, but it emerged for reacting to personal tragedies, such as because of the death of someone important, and even further, sympathy was directed toward helping those experiencing the loss to accept it more easily with a strong dose of the fatalism that characterizes Stoicism.


Things that Marcus could not know about were necessarily missing from his writing and from his understanding of the world, such as genetics. There was only a crude understanding at that time of genetics, even cruder than our current knowledge, and so he includes nothing about the importance of genetics in the permanence of civilization. The ancients' understanding of psychology was also limited in the neural details, although Marcus may have had a better intuitive understanding of the categories of individuals and how they tended to behave than almost anyone else. Being a manager teaches one this, and no one managed more than Marcus.


Stoicism's main points can serve as important components of an improved Buddhism, specifically, the emphasis on rationality instead of emotional reaction, the correct application of sympathy, and one thing that Buddha himself would have appreciated: the concept of the inevitability of suffering and death and that choices can be made which reduce the anguish and anxiety that come from them. Marcus went further than Buddha in understanding the liability of these emotions, as his goal for individuals was to fill the tasks necessary to maintain society at as high a level as possible, whereas Buddha was content with simply stabilizing the internal thoughts of individuals. Buddha had little interest in a macroscopic view of society, which Marcus certainly did, in a great amount and with implicit emphasis. Buddha was also born to be a ruler, but he left behind the role of rulership, while Marcus accepted it and used it to further the benefits of the individuals in the empire, in accordance with how he and other Stoics measured benefit. This was an omission in Buddha's teaching, and Marcus' writing can be used to help fill that gap.

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