Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/A Philosophical Emperor

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A PHILOSOPHICAL EMPEROR.[1]
By CALVERT VAUX.

AT our last meeting we listened with keen interest to all Mr. Lewis had to say about the Emperor Justinian; and his dramatic presentation of the subject cannot fail to leave a permanent impression on our minds, in regard to the life of this conspicuous example of a bad type of Roman. Selfish and sensuous, remorseless, bloodthirsty, energetic, full of vitality, a barbarian at heart; repulsive in his theories, odious in his practices, true to the woman he chose with an accurate instinct as his mate—not as wife or mother, or with any respect for the sex to which she belonged, but rather as an exaggerated exception to every idea that was then, and is now, current in regard to what a woman ought to be. There was nothing attractive or genial in the life of either Justinian or Theodora; and, so far as this forcible sketch allowed us to form an opinion, we were unable to discover any suggestion in the so-called civilization of the period that would be likely to help us in these times.

Imperial Rome, at the beginning of the Christian era, may of course be viewed from a different standpoint; and it seems to me worth while to-night to follow the clew that is given us by the writings of another Roman emperor, Marcus Antoninus, who began his reign in the middle of the second century,.

We do not depend here on any exaggerated history, or on a narrative full of misstatements, of the biased and interested kind, that appertain to the work of a contemporary reporter; but we have the clean words of the man himself, "published, and not published," as Aristotle said of his own writings to Alexander, who expressed a distaste to having such exquisitely subtile brain-work scattered broadcast in the common highway, where it might be picked up by anybody. The volume seems to be a commonplace book, made up of notes that have no special connection with each other in the pages on which they happen to stand, but are very definitely related in the sequence of moods that occur to the writer. It would, indeed, be interesting to collate the scattered beads of similar color, and group them together.

When the Japanese embassadors visited the United States, it was remarked that the manners of the most refined men among them were essentially European or American, if we choose so to state it; not that they were in the smallest particular borrowed or assumed, but because there is a logic in the culture of the human being, that brings about the same results all the world over, so far as manners are concerned. The style of Marcus Antoninus has this cosmopolitan air. He seems to have been the really complete ideal of a cultivated man; and his ways of thinking, his methods of expression, his social views, his manners, in fact, are correspondingly broad.

He would be at home in any century; but in none so completely, it seems to me, as in the nineteenth. You long to hear of his introduction to Darwin and Spencer, and feel that the conversation would grow interesting at once. The deeply-rooted doctrine of special creation is, we know, now losing force day by day, for all who have the opportunity to become acquainted with the current results of scientific investigation, even in a superficial, popular way. The invention of a matured animal is seen to be inconceivable, because all the facts that appertain to the idea of maturity are so definitely associated with the recognition of advancing age, that the conceptions are found to be inseparable. One of the scientific puzzles has therefore been to account in an intelligent manner for the different phases of life that occur from age to age; to suggest, as it were, some positive vehicle whose duty it has been to carry along the sequence of influences from generation to generation. Draper makes a suggestion in this direction, and points out that the air we breathe is the grand receptacle from which all living things come, and to which they all return. It is, he says, the cradle of vegetable, the coffin of animal life: made up of atoms that have once lived, and that have run through innumerable cycles of change, its particles await their turn for further reorganization. A corresponding thought also appears to have passed through the mind of Antoninus; not, of course, precisely in the same form, but there is an intelligible hint of the idea in the following sentence: "If souls continue to exist, how does the air contain them from eternity?"

Every era has what may be called its fashionable real problem for discussion. Sometimes it is ethical; at others, mechanical; or it may be artistic.

The recognition of a process of development in all things—or, as it is well termed, "evolution"—is the essential natural law which seems just now to be the important centre of scientific interest; and it may almost be said to be an outgrowth of the present decade. Yet in our author we see the same kind of yeast fermenting, and becoming an incisive statement in appropriate words. "Observe constantly that all things take place by change. Accustom yourself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, And to make new things like them. . . . For everything that exists is, in a manner, the seed of that which will be, and to think only of seeds that are cast into the earth, or into a womb, is a very vulgar notion. . . . In the series of things, those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; and the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship. . . . You exist as a part; you will disappear in that which produced you; or, rather, you will be received back into its seminal principle by transmutation. And, by consequence of such a change, I too exist, and those who begat me, and so on forever in the direction of the past; for nothing hinders us from saying so, even if the universe is administered according to definite periods of revolution."

Although habitually thoughtful and theoretical, his main desire is to be equal to the work of the day, whatever it may be. He expects to meet with opposition, as a matter of course, and tries to be always light-armed, cheerful, and ready for a run to the nearest summit, from which a new view may be obtained.

His experience shows the immense advantage of good fortune, when crystallized in the form of a liberal, far-reaching education; and one feels that to produce a man so cool, complete, and many-sided, none of his advantages were less than he required. The instinct that suggests the possession of wealth as a desideratum to nine-tenths of the race, finds here a sufficient defense. We want to have leisure, opportunity, plenty of right to occupy other people's time, and plenty of time to exercise our rights. In Antoninus we find a man, an emperor, who has been liberally brought up from the first; who confesses to having always had everything good under the sun; who complains of nothing in his personal experience; and who is as far as possible from repeating the words of his Oriental predecessor, " Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Nothing of the kind appears in his notes. He is a shrewd, busy, responsible man of the world; always giving orders and attending to the details of his position. He is, of course, never free from the influence of flatterers, hypocrites, and time-servers. He is exposed to selfish, baneful influences, as every emperor must be, but he is equal to the emergency; his self-respect encourages him constantly to draw the line between his own and other people's experiences, and to keep his own unconfused. He is temperate and simple in his personal habits from taste and from principle.

When the Russian Emperor Nicholas, who was a military chief in the fullest sense, visited England, he took his iron camp-bedstead into every palace that was placed at his service. The Duke of Wellington had the same habit to his dying day, his bedroom being a bare and almost unfurnished apartment. Antoninus had this soldier's custom, but "he loved temperance for its elegance, not for its austerity." It is possible, he says, for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show. It is, in fact, in such a man's power to bring himself very nearly to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought or more remiss in action with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler. He doubtless received a forcible influence in this direction from his uncle, the emperor who preceded him, in regard to whom he says: "The things which conduce in any way to the commodity of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without annoyance, so that when he had them he enjoyed them without affectation, and, when he had them not, he did not want them."

He appears to have been himself at an early age a hard student, to have adopted a plain, coarse dress, and to have lived a laborious, abstemious life. He was of a winning nature, and had a great affection for his teachers, who were numerous, and all eminent in their several professions. His uncle and adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, a truly noble man, gave by his example the key-note to many points in the character and taste of Marcus. He studied law carefully to fit himself for the high place he was destined to fill, and of course learned the Roman discipline of arms. He abandoned the studies of poetry and rhetoric advisedly; not from any lack of appreciation, but partly because he was made aware that his gift did not lie in that direction, and partly because he found these studies too fascinating for a young man with the responsibilities before him that he expected to assume.

Although he began his reign a century and a half after the birth of Jesus, it is evident that he is unaware of any influence that has been brought to bear on his own mind that may be traced to this source. "A soul," he says, "should be ready at any moment to be separated from the body, to be extinguished, or to continue to exist; but this readiness should come from a man's own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians."

There is, according to Leslie, sufficient evidence that he did not prevent, as he might have done by direct edict, a persecution of Attains and other Gallic Christians in the year 177. In his time the opposition between the old and the new belief was continually growing stronger, and the adherents of the heathen religion urged those in authority to a more regular resistance to the invasions of the Christian faith. It must of course be remembered that the Christians themselves maintained that all heathen religions were false, and openly opposed the heathen rites; thus making a declaration of hostility against the Roman Government, which tolerated all the various forms of superstitious worship that existed in the empire, and that could not consistently leave unrebuked an intolerant religion, which declared that all the rest were false. The rules against the Christians were made in the time of his predecessor, Trajan; and his own powers were, doubtless, limited by constitutional forms.

Among his acknowledgments to his teachers and friends, he mentions that he learned from his governor to be neither of the green nor the blue party at the games in the circus (showing that the feud was in active force at the time); also endurance of labor, to want little, to work with his own hands, not to meddle with other people's affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander. "From Rusticus," he says, "I learned not to be led away to sophistic emulation, nor to be writing on speculative matters, nor to deliver little hortatory orations, nor to be showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline." From the same teacher he also learned not to walk about the house in his out-door dress, and, as he says, "to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter Rusticus himself wrote from Sinuessa to my mother."

He appears to have been a Stoic, and thanks one of his tutors for introducing him to Epictetus; but he had none of the harshness, indifference, or self-assertion, that has become associated with the idea of Stoicism—perhaps a little unjustly, although there is always some ground for a good, wholesome prejudice against such a representative word.

For his wife, Faustina, he expresses great admiration. Neither she, however, nor her mother, who had the same name, succeeded in preserving a character unspotted from attack by the historians; and if his wife deserves the criticisms that are extant (of second-rate authority, however, Leslie says), even the Theodora that Prof. Lewis has given us so vivid an account of was hardly more vicious in taste, or reckless in practice. Swinburne has chosen her name as the key-note for a tour de force, and makes it the lay-figure on which to drape forty verses, in each of which the second line rhymes with Faustine. She seems in the poem to be closely related to Poe's Leonore, who was eliminated (the author tells us) out of his personal consciousness in accordance with the logical rules of imaginative and rhythmic art.

"You have the face that suits a woman for her soul's screen,

The sort of beauty that's called human in hell, Faustine.
You could do all things but be good or chaste of mien,
And that you would not if you could. We know Faustine."

His individual view of domestic life must, however, count for much, even in opposition to Swinburne. He says: "I thank the gods that, though it was my mother's fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that I have such a wife, so obedient, so affectionate, and so simple; and that I had abundance of good nurture for my children."

It is, perhaps, fair enough for the teacher to say that faith is best shown by works; but the interesting aspect of any faith is best shown by the theory involved, the intellectual ideal, the point aimed at, the sweep of the curve; and we are at no loss for information of this kind with regard to Antoninus, although there is but little record of his personal practice. His faith, as a man of the world, was in a good, social habit of life; in active, industrious, kindly cooperation. He believed in the present opportunity, in its duties especially. Enjoy life (he says) by joining one good thing to another, so as not to leave even the smallest interval between; and make your acts refer to nothing else than to a social end—not forgetting that the kinship is close between every man and the whole human race, which is not a community of a little blood or seed, but of intelligence.

Although an emperor, he was, therefore, in a certain sense, a very good republican; and he argues that we ought to propose to ourselves an object in life that shall be of a socially political kind, and actually stigmatizes any thought that tends to destroy social union as one of four principal aberrations of the superior faculty. He has an appreciative sense of humor that would easily become grim, if the whole soul of the man were not basked in sunshine, and full of good tempered acquiescence in the mysterious chances (as they seem to be) of Providence. Heraclitus, he says (after so many speculations on the conflagrations of the universe), was filled with water internally, and died smeared over with mud.

He then gives several other equally untoward illustrations, and proceeds quite cheerfully to draw his moral and urge a constant readiness to close the voyage of life.

The defect in his range of ideas is in the direction that might be anticipated—in the too great detachment and isolation of the purely mental capacity. We do not find a comprehension of the close and intimate connection between material and immaterial (amounting to identity so far as personal experience is concerned), which has been established by modern scientific research. An undue prominence is given to the power of individual will in the direction of self-control and the avoidance of evil; sufficient allowance is not made for human nature—that is, the exaggerations of passion, appetite, or, in general terms, of temperament. There is, however, no suggestion of prejudice, no shallow closing of the avenues through which fresh information may come, and one feels that when with our modern opportunities for investigation it does come, the fresh statement is in harmony with what has preceded it in the definitions of Antoninus, which prove to be right as far as they go, but are incomplete.

Although a logician on principle, by natural gifts, and by constant practice, there is nothing pitiless in his logic. It would almost seem that he had been aware of the hardness that so easily accompanies the power to state with precision a sequence of cause and effect, and he chooses rather to show how easy it is to prove logically that a charitable view may be taken of the evil doings of others. He says, for example: "When a man has presented the appearance of having done wrong, say, how can I be certain that this is a wrongful act? And even if he has done wrong, how do I know that he has not condemned himself?"

His definition of the way in which injuries should be met shows the true Christian spirit. He urges as invincible the continuance of a benevolent disposition toward even the most violent, and recommends that you "quietly admonish him and calmly correct his errors at the very time when he is trying to do you harm; saying, 'Not so, my child, we are constituted by Nature for something else;' and show him his error, with gentle tact, not with any double meaning or in the way of reproach, but affectionately and without any rancor in your soul, not as if you were lecturing him, nor yet that any by-stander may admire, but either when he is alone, or with caution as if he were alone."

His style is not particularly elegant, certainly not poetic or imaginative, but it has an intensely masculine quality, and its virile power of grasp is sufficient to insure to the thoughts of Marcus Antoninus a long future.

When an ethical principle is to be inculcated about which (we will assume) there is no difference of opinion, the appeal will be made to one kind of intelligence by thinkers of the calibre of (let us say) George Herbert, and to another kind by studious inquirers of a type which may be represented by Emerson and Antoninus, about whom all that one can say in the way of definition is that his appeal in each separate instance seems to be directly made without qualification or limitation, to himself, to you, to me, to every being capable of understanding the meaning of ordinary words. It is never special, but always general and in the direction of character which belongs, like the air, to every human being, and not in the direction of genius or acquirement, which is owned like the earth by human beings very unequally. Take, for instance, the following quotations: "You say, men cannot admire the sharpness of your wit. Be it so. But there are many other things of which you can hardly say you are not formed for them by Nature. Show those qualities then which are altogether in your power, sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, contentment with your portion, benevolence, frankness, freedom from trifling, magnanimity. Do you not see how many qualities you are immediately able to exhibit in which there is no excuse for natural incapacity and unfitness?"

The most potent charm of the Christian doctrine is in this direction. It is adapted to the rich and poor, but chiefly to the poor; to the educated and uneducated, but very decidedly to the uneducated. Probably the philosophy of Antoninus, emanating, as it does, from a rich, unhampered experience, bears the marks of the habitual surroundings, and is more polished and metaphysical than it would have been if its author had been born in a hut; but it is nevertheless always practical, and while clearly recognizing that there are inevitable limitations of human power, it makes a grand claim for the possible capacity of human intelligence; it is not a system of in-door ethics that fails of efficiency when taken into the open air and exposed to the weather. Take, for example, what he says of religion: "To those who ask, 'Where have you seen the gods? how do you comprehend that they exist? why do you worship them?' I reply, in the first place, that they may be seen even with the eyes. In the second place, I have not seen my own soul, yet I honor it; and in respect to the gods, from what I constantly experience of their power, I comprehend that they exist, and I venerate them."

Of immortality he says: "It hardly seems possible that men who through pious acts have been most intimate with the Divinity, when they die should be completely extinguished. But if this is so, rest assured that it ought not to have been otherwise; for, you see, in this inquiry you are disputing with the Deity, who would not have allowed anything in the order of the universe to be neglected unjustly and irrationally. . . .

"Wait for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every human being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements; for it is according to Nature, and nothing is evil that is according to Nature." It may, of course, be claimed that he is an altogether exceptional man, and that his lofty views were unshared by his contemporaries. This, however, is not a sufficient explanation.

In a note to one of Moore's songs we are told that it was founded on this anecdote in Warren's "History of Ireland:" "The people were inspired with such a spirit of honor, virtue, and religion, by the great example of Brien, and by his excellent administration, that as a proof of it we are informed that a young lady of great beauty, adorned with jewels and a costly dress, undertook a journey alone from one end of the kingdom to the other, with a wand only in her hand, on the top of which was a ring of great value; and such an impression had the laws and government of this monarch made on the minds of all the people that no attempt was made upon her honor, nor was she robbed of her clothes and jewels." Whether this history is true or not, there is no gainsaying the fact that it existed in the popular Irish thought, or it would never have found expression. It requires a delicate and chaste imagination to conceive of such a legend, and the character of the people to-day seems to justify us in admitting its essential probability.

These writings of Antoninus may be accepted in a similar sense as proof positive in regard to the good type of an imperial Roman. The ideas could not have grown in an isolated way on uncongenial soil; there must have been other good, imperial Romans, and many of them. He is a noble exemplar of his own age, and we learn through him to respect his contemporaries. He is also interesting as a representative man in a more extended sense. He combines the cool, unbiased, intrepid spirit of modern scientific inquiry with the earnest veneration of the moralist, and the speculative curiosity and audacity of the metaphysician. To-day we find the scholars and poets a little out of sympathy with the scientific men, and the men of science declaring war against such doctors of orthodoxy as persist in standing aloof on (what they think) intrenched ground.

Antoninus seems to be habitually clear from prejudice or superstition. When he makes a statement it is evident that he is giving us his views as fully and freely as possible, without let or hinderance, and this absence of partisanship constitutes the special charm that seems destined to give a fresh perennial interest to his monograph. The subjects he touches on are of universal value to all human beings when in a thoughtful mood, and it seems very doubtful whether his pure and forcible statements will ever lose their power, because they have been from the outset so thoroughly refined from all dross in the literary method of their presentation that it is hardly possible to conceive of any advance in culture that will leave them behind the age in this respect.

 
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  1. "Marcus Aurelius Antoninus," a paper read before the New York "Fraternity Club."