Sunday, June 14, 2009
I, Marcus - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. IX.29
Meditation IX.29 - I, Marcus - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it.1 But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivelers.2 Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato's Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter. For who can change people's opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of those who groan while they pretend to obey?3 Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum.4 They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them. Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.5
This is a deeply internal reflection on the thinking of Emperor Marcus Aurelius regarding his role as a world leader and on his unique position as a hard working and humble philosopher king.
(1) The world is carried along by the forces of destiny. This does not leave a leader powerless. A ruler's real power is not over the flow of history but over how we view history. Few leaders before Marcus (and few after) saw their historical role in history as he did.
(2) This stinging attack is on the arrogance and pride of those drivelers (world leaders) who see themselves as wise philosophers shaping the evolution of history. All a leader can really do is guide the ship of state toward what is inevitable.
(3) The best a leader can ever do in a historical sense is to shape attitudes. A ruler might attempt to bring about a grand political vision, such as the utopia envisioned by Plato in his Republic, but in reality leaders are no more than opinion leaders, and even in this department, their goals should be modest and directed toward the education of the populace, not toward enhancing the reputation of the ruler.
(4) Philip II (382-336 BCE) and his son Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) were rulers of Macedon. Demetrius of Phalerum (ca. 350-c. - 280 BCE) was a renowned orator, and for ten years a pro-Macedonian puppet ruler of Athens - one of those "drivelers" Marcus is probably referring to in this meditation.
(5) Marcus sees any leader who boldly tries to shape history as misdirected. In the best tradition of Greek tragedy all such leaders are bound to fail. Marcus is clear here that this is not his path. Like a pilot shielding the state from forces bigger than itself, Marcus is aware that the best he can do is to describe, teach and inspire - but even here his guidance will be modest. What must be, will be. The only power we or a leader has is in the opinion we take toward destiny.
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.