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Dialogue with a Roman Emperor

Dialogue with a Roman Emperor


If you had the chance to sit down and have a chat with anyone in history, who would you pick? I thought Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman Emperor and philosopher king, would be the perfect choice.

Luckily for me, a powerful necromancer by the name of Martin Hammond agreed to resurrect Marcus for the lowly price of ten thousand pounds (approx. $14,775). With no hesitation I wrote him a check and he performed the deed. Marcus now walks the earth, happily amazed by things like moving pictures, tall buildings, and air conditioning.

But before we released him into the wild, I did get to have my conversation.

Part 1

Marcus: From my tutor I have learned not to become a Green or Blue supporter at the races, or side with the Lights or Heavies in the amphitheatre.

Richard: He taught you well. Rooting for particular sports teams stems from our need for identification, not from rationality.

M: Rarely, and never without essential cause, to say or write to anyone that 'I am too busy'; nor to use a similar excuse, advancing 'pressure of circumstances', in constant avoidance of the proprieties inherent in our relations to our fellows and contemporaries.

R: PREACH. Claiming to be busy is stating that whatever you're occupied with is more important than what's being proposed. I developed a principle in college which holds true as ever today: always put my friends before my work. I'm deeply honored whenever someone offers to spend time with me and will respect them as such.

Furthermore, it is important to be on time, to be present. If you are late, apologize to your counterpart(s), either verbally or symbolically. Worse still is promising to show up and never showing - we call this "standing someone up" in modern times - but worst of all is to give no excuse or lie about your absence.

M: Socrates used to call the popular beliefs 'bogies', things to frighten children with.

R: One of humanity's most-loved fallacies is that certain beliefs are correct because they are popular. I believe you call this argumentum ad populum. "75% of the world believes X, so it must be true." Of course, a belief's popularity does not make it correct.

I like the word "bogies" too, but I think it better fits those fond of this fallacy.

Can a belief even be correct? Depends on your ruler, I guess, but my general impression is no. They can be more or less valid based on the quantity and quality of inductive evidence, but not correct, else they would be called facts.

Part 2

M: You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.

R: I must be quite lucky, that none of my close friends or relatives have died as of this writing. Nevertheless, a couple of my acquaintances have passed away before their time (although I know you dislike this phrase) and reading their friends' tributes to them on social media - their digital obituaries - is a haunting reminder that they will never again walk this earth.

Indeed, it is a fact that I may, at any time near or far, for any reason natural or abnormal, die. I deeply appreciate this and try to live more conscientiously as a result. As you might say, memento mori.

M: Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.

R: Japanese Zen monks cultivate a similar idea - in their stark vegetarian repasts, they appreciate every bite as if it were their last.

M: It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. 'But I have not played my five acts, only three.' 'True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.' Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation.

R: A deterministic worldview. In the book Flatland the square cannot see the volumetric dimension; in life we cannot see our future, though it may exist (I believe it does). The former point is more important, thus I allow myself to regret and jubilate over what I perceive I can control; at what I perceive to be inevitable, I will not react with sadness.

M: Imagine you were now dead, or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs.

R: Over these past two years, I somehow arrived at this idea on my own. "I'll be satisfied with everything if it all ended after event X, but not before." The trip overseas, a great meal...

M: No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.

R: I'm trying, Marcus, I really am.

Part 3

M: All is as thinking makes it so. Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought 'I am hurt': remove the thought 'I am hurt', and the hurt itself is removed.

R: Hamlet said pretty much the same thing, and I think it's true to some extent. It is a choice to feel hurt or sad or furious after someone says something to you, does something to you, or after some external misfortune inserts itself into your life. The same can be said about the positive emotions.

Most of us emote like we breathe - automatically, subconsciously. But if we focus on our breath, we can control it, use it to calm ourselves, maybe enter into a meditative state. If we think about our emotions, then we surely can temper them in a similar manner. Both can lead to healthier outcomes and greater self-awareness.

On the other hand, if we try not to breathe, the body forces us to violently gasp for air, and if we try not to emote, outbursts occur when the pressure of our suppressed emotions breaks the bottle. And then - if we succeed at not breathing, then we suffocate; if we succeed at not emoting, we lose part of our humanity.

M: Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.

R: An important lesson for me and one of the hardest to execute. My friends who brim with confidence and self-assuredness invite positive cycles of reinforcement, and the world, taking note, propels them to success. Self-doubt and self-harm just as surely invite the opposite.

Yet, what makes this lesson hard is the nature of truth. "Fake it 'till you make it," they say, but convincing myself to be someone who I fundamentally am not - regardless of the outcomes - is an exercise in self-deception and antithetical to both your and my moral compasses. Perhaps the key is to recognize and believe in your strengths instead of shyly holing them away, and to not dwell on your weaknesses, especially those imposed by fate.

Part 4

M: At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready of mind: 'I am getting up for a man's work. Do I still resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?' 'But this is more pleasant.' Were you then born for pleasure - all for feeling, not for action?

R: I, too, have tried philosophizing my way out of bed in the morning. It doesn't work.

M: Men seek retreats for themselves - in the country, by the sea, in the hills - and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind.

R: It is certainly valiant to try, although recent psychology indicates that our surroundings play a huge part in how we feel and how our minds work. No matter how much you try, your subconscious will still be aware of the fact that you're in a palace, that your attendants, advisors, and paperwork remain but a few feet away. Your contemporaries had good reason to escape to quieter, more remote locations; this really can give you a renewed sense of mental clarity.

Or perhaps my inability to lapse into a solitary solipsistic spa is a sign of weakness.

M: Whenever you want to cheer yourself, think of the qualities of your fellows - the energy of one, for example, the decency of another, the generosity of a third, some other merit in a fourth. There is nothing so cheering as the stamp of virtues manifest in the character of colleagues - and the greater the collective incidence, the better.

R: I have learned to admire the positive and unique characteristics of my friends and colleagues, especially those which would be hard for me to develop. Yet the myopic me must rely on them to say the same about myself, for I see nothing of particular note.

M: Whenever you meet someone, ask yourself first this immediate question: 'What beliefs does this person hold about the good and bad in life?' Because if he believes this or that about pleasure and pain and their constituents, about fame and obscurity, death and life, then I shall not find it surprising or strange if he acts in this or that way, and I shall remember that he has no choice but to act as he does.

R: This wisdom, which I didn't truly understand until last year, was hard-earned and well-worth the time. It is a deeper level of empathy that goes beyond that of the emotions to that of the character. I think binging on Humans of New York helped.

One of the hardest things, then, is to understand someone else's belief to be entirely reasonable given his circumstances, hold the opposite belief yourself, and believe your belief to be more valid for reasons beyond the fact that it is your own.

M: Picture everyone voicing pain or discontent at anything, as like a pig at a sacrifice, kicking and squealing. Just the same is the man who keeps it to himself, silently resentful on his bed. Think of all the threads that bind us, and how only rational creatures are given the choice of submitting willingly to events: pure submission is forced on all.

R: I'm not quite sure what you're saying at the end there, but a discussion is in order. Let's say you incur an injury. One school of thought would prefer you remain silent instead of crying out, viewing silence as strength, the ability to bear pain without complaint. The other school prefers you shout, thus attracting attention, and, potentially, aid. Males in particular are inculcated into the former school.

I argue that the degree of pain is what differentiates the two schools; when it reaches a certain threshold, everyone will shout. Although we dismiss (rightfully, I think) those who scream at the tiniest cuts.

And what if the pain is metaphysical? If the charge is injustice, then may those who voicelessly bear oppression, especially when shouting serves to benefit their population at no (or minimal) personal harm, be dismissed in a similar manner? If I do not scream for those who cannot, may I be damned in kind.

M: A deep scowl on the face is contrary to nature, and when it becomes habitual expressiveness begins to die or is even finally extinguished beyond rekindling.

R: Ah. So the phenomenon we call resting bitch face dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire.

M: The rotten pretence of the man who says, 'I prefer to be honest with you'! What are you on about, man? No need for this preface - the reality will show. It should be written on your forehead, immediately clear in the tone of your voice and the light of your eyes, just as the loved one can immediately read in all the glance of his lovers. In short, the good and honest man should have the same effect as the unwashed - anyone close by as he passes detects the aura, willy-nilly, at once. Calculated honesty is a stiletto. There is nothing more degrading than the friendship of wolves: avoid that above all. The good, honest, kindly man has it in his eyes, and you cannot mistake him.

R: I never liked people who wore sunglasses.

M: Above all, when you complain of disloyalty or ingratitude, turn inwards on yourself. The fault is clearly your own, if you trusted that a man of that character would keep his trust, or if you conferred a favour without making it an end in itself, your very action its own and complete reward.

R: A good leader takes responsibility, a bad one blames others.

Part 5

M: 'A king's lot: to do good and be damned.'

R: Nice quote. Let's give it a close reading. We all know what a king is, but the word "lot" here connotes a sense of destined misfortune. You believe that praise or insult has no bearing on the goodness of an action, so you will act in accordance to what you believe is correct regardless of how it is perceived. But if the public is damning you for making objectively good decisions, then...

In another sense, this suggests that to do good and be damned are hallmarks of being a king, in which case anyone who acts as such is therefore kingly. Interpreted this way, anyone can be kingly; it isn't the title of King that counts but the fulfillment of the condition. Time and time again I have either witnessed or read about politicians or corporate executives making decisions for what is commonly called "the greater good," knowing that the public will recoil.

Conversely, he who holds the title but does no good must therefore be no king.

M: This too is a counter to pretension, that you have lost now the chance to live your whole life, or at least your adult life, as a philosopher: indeed it has become clear to many, yourself included, that you are far from philosophy. You are tarnished, then: difficult for you now to win the reputation of a philosopher, and besides your station in life is a contrary pull.

R: We must all choose our path. My insistence on generalism has surely hurt me (this is changing soon). But Marcus, you should realize that while your position may not afford you the authority to develop philosophy, it is nigh the best for its practice and dissemination - arguably more important than mere sophistry. A king's lot.

M: Do not imagine that, if something is hard for you to achieve, it is therefore impossible for any man: but rather consider anything that is humanly possible and appropriate to lie within your own reach too.

R: One of my more intelligent friends proposed the idea that given enough time, he could learn quantum physics, or anything currently known to man. It is a nice idea - to be unbounded by the limits of human achievement, the barrier being time, not talent. Regardless, it hardly seems sensible to agonize over mathematics when I can with ease be a brilliant writer, or vice versa.

M: One man prays: 'How can I sleep with that woman?' Your prayer is: 'How can I lose the desire to sleep with her?' Another prays: 'How can I be rid of that man?' You pray: 'How can I stop wanting to be rid of him?' Another: 'How can I save my little child?' You: 'How can I learn not to fear his loss?' And so on. Give all your prayers this turn, and observe what happens.

R: O Gautama, I assumed you had achieved Nirvana over six hundred years ago, but I see you have reincarnated in the form of a Roman Emperor. Fitting. A great vessel to spread your teachings, indeed. (For more on Buddhism see my post on Zorba the Greek).

M: To continue the same man as you have been up to now, to be torn apart and defiled in this life you live, is just senseless self-preservation like that of half-eaten gladiators who, mauled all over and covered in blood by the wild beasts, still plead to be kept alive for the next day, when in their same state they will meet again those same claws and teeth.

R: Day by day, your gladiators are fated to die in the ring much as the homeless are fated to cast away their dignity on the streets. Yet observe how still they cling to life, begging, clamoring, laughing, be the weather sun or icy rain. Have you considered that they understand something you don't - something fundamental, something pure? Does living itself have intrinsic value?

I don't really think so - but I would like to be the kind of person who does.

M: How many who once rose to fame are now consigned to oblivion: and how many who sang their fame are long disappeared.

R: You are right; fame is not a virtue, and there is no inherent goodness in its pursuit. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote some fantastic lines on this very topic.

M: No one is so fortunate as not to have standing round his deathbed some people who welcome the fate coming on him. Was he the earnest sage? Then maybe there will be someone at his final moment saying to himself: 'We can breathe again now, rid of this schoolmaster. He was not hard on any one of us, but I could feel his silent criticism of us all.'

R: Surely I am not so virtuous as to proclaim these thoughts had not crossed my own mind. Yet, think of it as a scale, weighed by positive and negative thoughts. Even for those who end with a net negative, we all deserve a chance at life by virtue of being born, offending and pleasing whomever.

M: The court of Augustus - wife, daughter, grandsons, stepsons, sister, Agrippa, relatives, household, friends, Areius, Maecenas, doctors, diviners: an entire court dead. Go on now to other cases, where it is not the death of just one individual but of a whole family, like the Pompeys. And there is the inscription you see on tombstones: 'The last of his line'. Just think of all the anxiety of previous generations to leave behind an heir, and then one has to be the last. Here again the death of a whole family.

R: And so it is with me.

Part 6

M: Just as all the business of the amphitheatre and such places offends you as always one and the same sight, and this monotony of the spectacle bores you, so it is too with your experience of life as a whole: everything, up or down, is the same, with the same causes.

R: This is why I seek as much novelty as possible. I don't understand those who are comfortable with their same boring routines, day-in, day-out. Although, in a way, I envy them. Don't you?

That being said, the day novelty itself becomes mundane is the day I die. I don't think that will ever happen because that's, like, an oxymoron.

M: You will think little of the entertainment of song or dance or all-in wrestling if you deconstruct the melodic line of a song into its individual notes and ask yourself of each of them: 'Is this something that overpowers me?' You will recoil from that admission. So too with a comparable analysis of dance by each movement and each pose, and the same again with wrestling. Generally, then, with the exception of virtue and its workings, remember to go straight to the component parts of anything, and through that analysis come to despise the thing itself. And the same method should be applied to the whole of life.

R: I'm fond of using this argument against anything I personally find distasteful, but am not fond when it's used against my own hobbies. Not that anyone's ever used it, but since one of my hobbies happens to be constructing retorts to imaginary criticisms of my character, thanks for giving me some fodder. I'd respond like this:

We do not listen to each note in its own vacuum, though you may reduce it as such. We have the context of the notes which come before and after. While each individual note is nothing special, their confluence lends melody or cacophony, and thus, enjoyment. The same can be said of flavors, sights, tactile sensations...

M: The rotting of the base material of everything. Water, dust, bones, stench. Again: marble is a mere deposit in the earth, gold and silver mere sediments; your clothing is animal hair, your purple is fish blood; and so on with all else. And the vital spirit is just the same, changing from this to that.

R: Now you're being more literal. You're right, again, these things don't hold any particular meaning in and of themselves. For that matter, I don't think anything does. Yet they must be meaningful in some sense, you see your men clamor over them, spilling blood, destroying reputations to get a little more o' this and a little more o' that. So what makes them meaningful? Their social value. Who gives them social value? Humans.

M: How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig; and again that the Falernian wine is the mere juice of grapes, and your purple-edged robe simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shell-fish blood! And in sexual intercourse that it is no more than the friction of a membrane and a spurt of mucus ejected.

R: Poetic, but that and nothing more. In my view these are all things that make life worth living. We are men, not beasts, we eat to savor, to appreciate the dedication of those who provide for us, we fashion ourselves to be seen in certain lights by others, to feel better about ourselves; intercourse is, hopefully, an expression of love, passion, devotion, any number of things. Food, shelter, reproduction - but consciousness makes all the difference.

M: Consider, for example, the time of Vespasian. You will see everything the same. People marrying, having children, falling ill, dying, fighting, feasting, trading, farming, flattering, pushing, suspecting, plotting, praying for the death of others, grumbling at their lot, falling in love, storing up wealth, longing for consulships and kingships. And now that life of theirs is gone, vanished.

R: The funny thing is, two thousand years later, you're still exactly on the mark. Being human hasn't fundamentally changed all that much - but now that I think about it, each of those dimensions you mentioned has deepened in complexity over the years.

In high school I would quite frequently lament this cycle because I didn't want to fall into it, like some kind of Oedipal fate. We're born, we go to elementary-middle-high-university school, we graduate, get a job, maybe go back to school, get married, buy a house, have kids, work for a few decades, retire, and die. How droll.

And yet, how exciting. Again, the abstraction of these concepts is irrelevant; they do not happen as words on a page. These things take years, colorful, colorful years filled with moments that burst with meaning, and though the grand path may be the same, hopefully you are curious enough to unravel your own. Else, indeed, there would be no point.

M: Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny - what fraction of that are you?

R: What fraction of that is Earth? Even the notion of a "fraction" is too infinitely grand for our pale blue dot. You would do well to listen to Epicurus and enjoy it while it lasts. I say for us, life is eternity, and eternity a second.


I regret to inform you that Marcus is not actually alive and that necromancy is not real. Martin Hammond, however, is, and he was gracious enough to translate Marcus's private journal into English for readers of all ages to enjoy. It is appropriately titled Meditations.

Anything that Marcus says here has been lifted from this diary, mostly verbatim from the translated version. Whenever he uses the word "you" above, he was actually referring to himself. I've taken this liberty to simulate a conversation with him. However it is up to you, reader, to determine or even decide whom I am addressing when I use the word "you." It might be you, it might be Marcus, it might even be myself.

Related: The Art of Grieving Well