Sometime in the winter of 179/180 CE, while on campaign in the Balkans, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – the last of the five good emperors (the white haired one in Gladiator) – wrote these words in his personal journal. He was reminding himself to take care about the things he thought, said and did. He believed that acting in a “right” way mattered, and that integrity mattered a great deal.
As Emperor what he said mattered. He was in a such a powerful position that his word, quite literally, was law and carried the power of life and death over the ordinary mortals over whom he ruled. Marcus did his best to live his philosophy and not to abuse his power. He lived in a time when philosophy was not some desiccated academic pursuit but a way of life. Something to be lived every day. He followed the teaching of the Stoic school and believed in the stoic virtues, the yardsticks against which he measured himself.
If it is not right, don’t do it: if it is not true, don’t say it.
- Justice – Treating others with decency and fairness. Not imposing our world view on others. Not giving in to hate speech or treating one part of society differently from the rest. Bearing your community in mind when you make decision about how to behave. Masks anyone. Vaccination?
- Wisdom – Practical wisdom for day to day living. This is seen as the chief human good and remains so under all and any conditions. It allows us to make ethical decisions. Without the wisdom to live well how can we make any sensible decisions about the right way to behave? Perhaps a little practical wisdom might have prevented the unedifying spectacle of Capitol insurgents blaming Trump for their decision to attend the party.
- Temperance – Moderation in all things. A middle way. that old fashioned virtue of self control. Being able to rein in our desires and actions so that we do not lose control or yield to excess or the masses. Thinking before we act.
- Courage – Although this can have a physical element it is more about moral courage. To act according to what is right and to continue to do so even tin he most demanding of circumstances. To take responsibility for our actions and to face the consequences of our choices with equanimity.
Every day, despite all the demands on his time, Marcus took the time to write in his journal. A document that he titled “To Himself”, but is better known as “Meditations.” He wrote in his journal to review the day just past and as a way to prepare himself for the day ahead. He did this in order to hold himself to account for his past behaviour and to plan for whatever upsets might come his way in the future, thinking through the trials and tribulations that might he might face so that he could take them in his stride.
Marcus has been a beacon of upstanding behaviour ever since.
Give distinction and stand out as a fine example to the rest. Epictetus.
In light of the way various World Leaders have chosen to behave over the past few years it would seem unlikely that someone like Marcus would have managed to get elected to any meaningful position if he espoused views of this nature today.
We live at a time where these four cardinal virtues, or indeed any virtues, have been deliberately set aside by those who should be setting an example to the rest of us. Presidents and other world leaders choose to lie to the world. They incite hatred and insurgency. Feeding off those who feel dispossessed and with little real stake in their world to push their own personal agendas and to aggrandise themselves.
Worst of all their followers, fed on a diet of misinformation, take this as permission to stop thinking for themselves and to express the most horrific opinions and bizarre beliefs without challenging their veracity or impact.
It does seem strange that a wealthy american realtor should choose to fly by private jet to Washington, stand around advertising her services before then entering the Capitol complex and then, not just expects, but demand a pardon from the President when she has to face the consequences of her own conscious decision to act unlawfully.
Perhaps what the world needs at the moment is more of these stoic virtues. We should encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions instead of allowing them to abdicate their responsibility to the rest of the world and blaming others for the decisions they choose to make.
All rights come with accompanying responsibilities. The greatest of these is not to abuse them.