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Marcus Aurelius on living in denial

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 03, 2017

Through one of those apparent quirks of Divine Providence, my son Peter gave me a copy of the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius for Christmas. This struck me as “quirky” for two reasons: First, Peter found the book on my Amazon wish list yet I have no idea how it got there; and, second, in the week before Christmas Marcus Aurelius had come into my mind as someone whose work I should read in order to better understand the interplay between the natural law and Divine Revelation. This is a minor example, but there is a marvelous synchronicity in the ways of God with men.

The natural law has interested me more and more in recent years because it is the key to solving one of the major problems plaguing what is left of Western civilization. At our present moment in history, the West has no idea of how to approach the relationship between human freedom and a sound social order. Given that modern pluralistic societies must accommodate people with a dizzying array of beliefs, those who make laws have absolutely no idea of how to determine which sorts of human conformity may be legitimately enforced. This vacuum has been filled, as it so often is in human affairs, by the constantly changing whims of those whom we call “our cultural elites”.

But the solution to this dilemma actually lies in the natural law, which is written by the Creator not through a specific verbal revelation but in the very nature of things. Because the natural law is accessible to all through nature itself, it may be justly enforced for all. This is not true of what we call Divine Revelation, which depends for its reception on opportunity, grace and faith. The prerequisite for life in accordance with the natural law is that the human person must accept the essential givenness of nature, including his own human nature.

Of course, the natural law is reinforced in Divine Revelation. For example, the Ten Commandments are as succinct a statement of the main points of the natural law as we could possibly desire. But because of the natural law’s importance (by its rejection) in our contemporary culture’s current situation, it is always worthwhile to see what those in the past who lacked Divine Revelation have made of it. Reflection on the natural law is very strong in the classical tradition, but also in some other traditions, such as Confucianism in China. In any case, the writings of Marcus Aurelius open a particularly large and clear window on what it means to follow nature in the absence of faith.

I will offer just one extended quotation here; it is the fifth brief meditation among those collected in Book 5:

No one could ever accuse you of being quick-witted.
All right, but there are plenty of other things you can’t claim you “haven’t got in you.” Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer—beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for less.
Or is it some inborn condition that makes you whiny and grasping and obsequious, makes you complain about your body and curry favor and show off and leaves you so turbulent inside?
No. You could have broken free a long way back. And then you would have been only a little slow. “Not so quick on the uptake.”
And you need to work on that as well—that slowness. Not something to be ignored, let alone to prize.

Sadly, a great many of our cultural elites—the wealthy, the politically well-connected, the fashionable, those who control the media, and all the run-of-the-mill intellectuals who train for fashion rather than teach—are characterized by precisely this slowness, this obtuseness in the face of reality. They need to work on that. It is not something to be ignored, let alone to prize.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 04, 2017 5:35 PM ET USA

    jgiordano999999: You are absolutely correct that the translation is modern and even colloquial. The edition I was given is the 2003 Modern Library paperback. The translation and introduction are by Gregory Hays, an associate professor of classics at the University of Virginia.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Feb. 04, 2017 10:55 AM ET USA

    I'm fond of good old kick-you-in-the-pants Marcus Aurelius. He reminds me of a pagan version of St. Josemaria Escriva.

  • Posted by: jgiordano999999 - Feb. 04, 2017 6:19 AM ET USA

    The translation sounds very modern, with phrases that could not be from the 2nd century AD. Who's translation are you using?

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Feb. 04, 2017 6:01 AM ET USA

    Speaking of synchronicity, my wife discovered recently that she is descended from Marcus Aurelius, so she gave all our grandchildren a copy of the Meditations for Christmas.