The Tale of the Two Aurelii: The Hero vs. the Real Man

Marcus Aurelius

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.

Marcus Aurelius, from the perspective of a modern reader of his Meditations, was full of himself. The philosopher-emperor, the royal poster boy for Stoicism and the best virtues pagan Classicism could produce, clearly considered himself far above the unwashed crowds who were ignorant of what was good and evil. He was, for the modern mind, a little too proud of his own spectacular legacy, perfect piety, and great accomplishments; and unbearably condescending and patronizing to those who lacked the same fortune and the same virtues.

It is unclear why he wrote the Meditations. Seemingly, he didn’t intend to publish them in his lifetime. They may have been meant for his sons. (Marcus Aurelius had 7 sons and 6 daughters.) The very idea of writing a philosophical personal testimony was a novelty for the pagan world; no one before Aurelius tried to write one. Xenophon’s Anabasis did have some autobiographical elements but it was in the tradition of writing military history, as detached and disinterested as possible. A personal testimony of one’s life, from a philosophical or religious perspective, could be found only in the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes. Outside the Hebrew/Christian tradition, Aurelius was the first to attempt one.

There may have been a good reason for Aurelius to break with the Classical tradition and write a personal testimony. One hundred and fifty years after the Resurrection of Christ the small but very active and vocal religion of Christianity was producing numberless personal testimonies. Many of them were written and copied and distributed to churches. Some of them survived long enough to be included later in the menaion and the paterikon, as biographies of saints to be read instead of sermons in the church. These personal testimonies (confessiones or homologies) were not given by prominent or learned members of the Church only; everyone, including people of low origin, had something to say. The Scriptures encouraged them to make a confession (homology) with their mouth (Rom. 10:9-10). And they did. They confessed to their families, to their neighbors, to their business partners, to their masters. They readily confessed their “guilt” of being Christians when dragged to court, as Tertullian – a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius – says in his Apology. They confessed on forums and marketplaces, in writing and speech. A pagan world that used to look down on personal testimonies, especially those given by people of low birth, was suddenly flooded with them.

And they exercised great influence. Personal testimonies of Christians did not follow the Classical literary traditions, as we will see below. Most were emotionally charged pieces of low literary quality. But they converted scores of people. Multitudes came to the faith. Fifty years before Marcus Aurelius became Emperor, Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan, “I keep punishing them and new ones keep appearing.” By the time of Marcus Aurelius, there were enough Christians in the Empire to organize whole Christian legions in the army, and also to provoke the great local persecution of Christians in Lyon in Gaul. Aurelius, as a good pagan, couldn’t help but notice.

And most probably, he set out to counter the Christians’ personal testimonies with a personal testimony of his own. They spoke about their superstitious faith, these lowborn people, illiterate and ignorant of the great Classical tradition. He, the Emperor-Philosopher, would present his enlightened philosophy to the world in a form that people wanted. Thus, the Meditations were born.

Whether this was the true motive for writing them or not, they were different from the Christian testimonies. The testimonies of Christians were either addressed to their neighbors, or to the emperor, or – as with Augustine – directly to God. Aurelius couldn’t find anyone worthy enough to be addressed in his testimony; so he titled it, Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, To Myself.

And then he told himself how educated, enlightened, and pious he was, compared to everyone else. In the starting chapter, where he mentions all his teachers by name and thanks them, and expresses his gratitude to his parents and his grandfather, and to the gods also, he does it in a way of a shameless show off: all the thanks and gratitude are given in the context of the superb qualities he has inherited from them:

From my Grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts. . . .

It must be clear to the reader who he is reading about: a scion of one of the top families in the empire, adopted in the Top Family, trained by the best teachers in the empire, who inherited and learned the best morals, manners, and knowledge, acquired the best virtues, and made the best use of them. Even in his self-advice to be humble there isn’t much humbleness; be humble, he advises himself, because you are much more knowledgeable than these people. In his self-advice to self-restraint in anger there is the awareness of his own superiority. It is astounding how many times Aurelius uses in his advice to himself the word “perfect”: “use perfect openness,” “perfect understanding,” “perfect virtue,” etc. He does believe he can do these thing perfectly. And why not? After all, he is a true philosopher, and quite a few times he advises himself to act as a true philosopher, which in his view is the perfection of human life. There is no self-admission of any weakness in the true philosopher; no doubts, no faltering steps, no insecurity, no fear. Neither is there any hope about anything good that might come his way, for it is the weak, those who can not deal with the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune, who find comfort in hopes. The true philosopher, the ultimate Stoic, has no need of hopes. He takes the blows of fate perfectly calmly, and deals with them in a perfect way, and detaches himself from any consideration of future so that no one could say that his inner strength has come from an illusory hope.

Truly, a modern reader, brought up in the shadow of Christendom, would conclude that the man is full of himself.

But that would be a rather unfair statement. Marcus Aurelius may have been a prideful man, no doubt about that. But his style of writing expressed much more than his pride. It expresses also the Classical pagan ideal of what a man was supposed to be, and how a man’s life was supposed to attain moral and philosophical fulfillment. In Stoicism, the best of the best philosophies that the pagan world could produce, being an ordinary man wouldn’t suffice. Nothing less than a hero was necessary to meet the heavy requirements of the Stoic ideal. Stoicism inherited from its pagan roots the perennial paradox of man: how does one reconcile the implacable fate (fortuna, moira) and the burden of moral demands true philosophy places on the shoulders of a virtuous man? In his struggle against fate man had no external resources to help him. There were no gods – or if there were, they were busy with their own struggles against chaos and fate – to help him. The material world was certainly not of help, being impersonal and mostly hostile, burdening a man with the heavy load of natural decay and aging. Society couldn’t be relied upon, for in its larger part it constituted of human beings lower in birth and virtue than the virtuous man; if anything, society was just another of the forces of chaos, another tool in the hands of the fate. The Classical man, in his struggle to achieve the ideals of Stoicism, could rely only upon himself, upon whatever he could find in himself that came as a result of his breeding or his upbringing. He was a lonely figure, against the whole universe. He couldn’t afford any weakness; nor could he afford exposing or admitting any weakness. He had to be a hero, and nothing less.

Marcus’s attempts died with him. He had no heir to continue the work. He had 13 children, and none of them continued the work. His son, Commodus, the only Roman Emperor “born in the purple,” that is, born to a reigning Emperor, was addicted to personally participating in wrestling matches and gladiatorial games. The decline of the Roman Empire started with him. Dio Cassius, a contemporary historian, remarked grimly that with Commodus, “the Empire descended from a kingdom of gold to a kingdom of dust and iron.”

Cultural infertility seems to be the fate of every elite.

* * * * *

Augustine of Hippo

Still, dust and ashes as I am, allow me to speak before thy mercy. Allow me to speak, for, behold, it is to thy mercy that I speak. . . .

There was no other to whom Augustine could devote his Confessions, and to whom he could address them, but to God. In a world where individual and cultural wickedness attacked man from his early years, there was nothing else that deserved even to be mentioned. Like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Augustine’s Confessions were a mix of autobiographical data and philosophical thoughts. Like Marcus Aurelius, Augustine was very aware that his personal testimony could and would be used to inspire others, and even to build a civilization. He didn’t just write an autobiography; it was a mixture of biographical material, devotions and praises to God, and philosophical meditations. The Confessions sound like a sermon more than they sound like an autobiography.

And no wonder. Like we saw above, Christianity’s most voluminous contribution to the literary tradition of the Classical world was not its theological or philosophical treatises. It was personal confessions. Yes, Christian authors did write theology, and even there, they couldn’t avoid the autobiographical or historical element; it was simply impossible to separate theology from biography or history when it comes to a faith whose creed was a self-conscious affirmation of historical and biographical facts. (“Who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, etc.”) Christian confessiones, as in personal accounts of conversions of individuals and families, were far more numerous than theological treatises. Not everyone could be a theologian; and besides, Scripture didn’t say, “write theology.” But it did encourage believers to confess their faith. And they did. Not because they were important as persons but because it was the best way to present to the unbelieving world for consideration, and to their fellow believers for encouragement, the faith that was taking over the world.

The Classical world must have been horrified. For as far as literature was concerned, it had its own rules. And rule No. 1 was: Don’t use a common person, with his weaknesses, shortcomings, mistakes, to teach lessons. From the Greek comedies, through Theophrastus’s Characters and Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, to the popular plays at the time of Augustine, common people were used only as laughingstock, for entertainment. For instruction and motivation, Classicism had heroes, nearly-divine human beings who exhibited no weakness, no hesitation, no moral shortcomings. Like Hercules or Odysseus. But Christians, with their confessiones, broke every single canon of the pagan antiquity. The age of heroes gave way to the age of little people.

And Augustine presents the best example of such a confession. There is not a single line in the whole book that presents the strength or the moral virtues of its author. Augustine goes to great lengths to present the temptations of his youth, and how he fell into all the possible moral traps his life in North Africa could give him. Even when his close friend died, and Augustine was overcome with grief, he realized that it was his life of sorrow that he began to love, not his departed friend, so selfish was he and so weak his conscience was. Even when he met Christ, the perfection of all he has been looking for, he still couldn’t comprehend Him, such was his infirmity in thinking and understanding. It took a miraculous event for him to actually take the Scripture and read it. His conversion to Christ, eventually, came not as a confident, purposeful march to knowledge and moral perfection, but as confused and mindless wanderings of a foolish sinner who reached out to what was good and virtuous only when forced from above.

He exclaimed in Book 2, Chapter 7:

What man is there who, when reflecting upon his own infirmity, dares to ascribe his chastity and innocence to his own powers…

Indeed.

“Oh, but,” a Classical pagan would reply, “whatever virtues you have, must be your own, of your own powers, otherwise it doesn’t count.”

But Augustine would reply that the reason was that a pagan has no help outside of himself. He is alone against the hostile world. A Christian is not. He has God, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of God on his side. Or, rather, he is now united to Jesus through His Holy Spirit, thus leaving his own weaknesses at the Cross, and putting on the strength of Christ, and of God. He doesn’t have to become divine to be courageous and virtuous; God comes to live in him (John 14:23). And to add insult to the injury, Augustine not only claimed that virtues could be acquired by anyone, he also declared that a person does nothing to acquire them; it is all the work of Christ. That’s how he himself, the ultimate sinner and the weakest of all minds, finally came to Christ and saw what was good, and was able to pursue what was good. Even when he made efforts, they were misguided. When hopelessness and sorrow overcame him, he quit making efforts, and then God acted on his behalf.

This understanding of acquiring virtue and living a virtuous life was a threat to the Classical culture. The Classical culture viewed the world and history as the working of elite beings, gods and heroes. It had its own version of a “dominion covenant,” and that version implied a powerful elite dominating over the population to achieve the goals of the elite. The elite was to be bred and nurtured carefully; it had to produce heroes – intellectual, military, administrative – who are up to the task. Marcus Aurelius was very self-conscious when he presented himself as the best person around; he was the embodiment of what the Classical culture wanted to produce for its ideal to be achieved. Educating the masses was dangerous. Elevating the masses to the level of acquiring virtue and courage and ability to govern and build a civilization was dangerous. Giving the masses the assurance that they could be the heroes of tomorrow, and giving the common man the understanding that his individual life matters was dangerous.

But Christianity declared that those despised common men, predestined to be the manure of the Classical society, could attain to the highest level of virtue. And they could do it not by carefully cultivating the virtues of the heroes but by submitting to a higher power outside of themselves. Government and dominion was not reserved to the highborn anymore, or to those who had in themselves the power to take on the world and bring order to the chaos. Little people, motivated and driven by a cause much higher than any of the highborn has ever had, were aiming at taking the civilization and changing it according to their religion. The age of the heroes was rapidly disappearing; the age of the real men, with all their weaknesses and shortcomings and little joys and limitations was advancing.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

The real men were winning, and they were shaming the strong.

Little people could rise to the level of heroes just by faith alone, when chosen and justified by God. While Augustine and the other writers of confessiones didn’t intend to give any promise of earthly glory and power, this promise was implied. To those same Christians to whom Paul said that there were not many wise, powerful, or noble amongst them, Paul also said that they were reigning with Christ, and everything was given to them, including the world, the present, and the future (1 Cor. 3:21-22). These words of Paul were a threat to the very social order of paganism. The confessiones were the direct fulfillment of that threat. The world was now upside down, because the little people in the society, enlightened by this new religion, were beginning to see meaning and reason for their individual existence.

Consequently, the civilization which Christianity began to build in its early centuries was in direct contrast to the civilization Augustus and Aurelius tried to build and maintain. It honored civil authority but rejected privilege. It honored the authority of the master over his slave (Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5; 1 Pet. 2:18) but established the moral equality of masters and slaves (Philemon 16-17). It divorced power from social status and wedded it to servanthood (Rom. 13:4).

It has been said by many non-Christian historians that Christianity was the religion of the middle class, of those who have established their social status not by privilege or spectacular abilities and feats but by undertaking to serve the immediate needs of their neighbors and making their living from that. There is much truth in that statement. For indeed, while the middle class of the little people was ridiculed and looked down upon by the Age of Heroes, it found its true meaning and purpose under Christianity. Obedience to God and service to other men replaced pride and power and triumph as the dominant virtues in the culture; as a result, the middle class replaced the elite as the dominant group in the culture.

And this new civilization, based on the real men in the farms, in the workshops, and in the marketplaces, proved to be much more fertile and tenacious than the world of heroes and true philosophers. Little men, as weak and infirm and imperfect they are, when empowered by the Spirit of Christ, always win the cultural war against the heroes. When the political power of the Empire was reduced to nothing, it was the church that built the new civilization, based on simple men and their families, exercising obedience under God. For several centuries after Constantine, Christendom was a civilization of a libertarian social order based on families, local communities, and local churches. The powerful of the day had very little influence over the life of the average Christian. And yet, contrary to the expectations of Classicism, such a civilization of average people proved to be much more flexible and resilient. It not only survived the breakdown of the old order and the attacks of pagan Barbarians and militant Muslims, but also managed to grow and take over formerly pagan lands, through the power of its Gospel. After AD 600, Christianity in the Muslim lands, where it lost all the political support it had before the rise of Islam, was nevertheless able to maintain such high level of social organization that the Muslim rulers self-consciously relied on the church leaders in their lands for both legislative and social advice and co-operation.

Things changed later, when the church moved back again to the Classical dichotomy between Plato and Aristotle. The ideals of the Classical world were revived and integrated into theology – long before the Renaissance – and the Church adopted at least partly the tenets of the Classical elitism: sacramentalism/liturgism, the high church hierarchy, the doctrine of salvation through personal merit and works, etc. Feudalism was not a new social order; it was the restoration of the old pagan order after the Church lost its original doctrine.

No wonder, then, that when the Reformers set out to restore the doctrine of the Apostles – and of Augustine – in the Church the culture they created was again a culture of the dominance of what is called today the “middle class.” The Protestant revolutions of the 16-18th centuries were all revolutions against elitist regimes. And the outcomes of all of them were libertarian societies where the little people were given the liberty to produce, serve, innovate, and pursue their callings in life without the domination of “heroes.” The culture of the Reformation was a culture of servants, weak, simple, little, imperfect, but empowered by the grace of God; and that culture created a civilization far superior to the culture of the elites. And if you need an illustration of the difference, think Holland and Spain in the 16th century, and then Holland and Spain in the 20th century. And there are many more historical examples of the superior civilizational influence of the Augustinian ideal of man.

The two Aurelii – Marcus Aurelius and Aurelius Augustine – were the best representatives of their ages. One was the hero, the true philosopher, the perfect man bred and cultivated to take on, by his own power and virtue, the forces of chaos and bring order. The other was the imperfect, little, insignificant, common man who had no power in himself except whatever power was bestowed to him from above. One displayed the best of paganism. The other displayed the worst of paganism; and then was changed to a redeemed man.

The hero was a complete failure. His attempts were barren, and the civilization he wanted to build and maintain came down. The real man was successful far beyond his own expectations. He laid the foundation for our modern world, with its liberty, prosperity, ethical values, and increased knowledge of God and His Gospel. Godly dominion by real men always beats domination and power by heroes and elites. Always.

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About Bojidar Marinov

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.com/

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