Marcus Aurelius vs. Modernity
A week and a half ago I finished Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I’m currently halfway through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I can hardly imagine two more dissimilar books. Notes is a literary personification of The Enlightenment carried to its logical extreme. Constantly second-guessing himself and wrestling with both pride and insecurity, its anonymous narrator begins by soliloquizing on the state of man and the world. His statements are often contradictory, i.e. “Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the least stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him.” Through this narrator, Dostoevsky exposes modern man’s addiction to progress detached from achievement, and good reputation detached from hard work and morality. Boredom and embarrassment are hailed among the chiefest of evils.
Reading Notes is a bit like looking into a mirror at the worst parts of myself. I suspect these are problems common to all men and all times (many times while reading, I was reminded of the human diagnosis in Pascal’s Pensées), but with the advent of modernity, the problems began to solicit praise. They cannot stand scrutiny, however! As Pascal notes in his thoughts about diversion, boredom is unbearable because it forces a man to think about his inadequacy: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” The fictional narrator of Notes from Underground thinks a great deal too much for contentment. He cannot decide whether to applaud himself as clever or denounce himself as an idiot. “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?” he asks.
Notes is divided into two parts. In the second, the narrator tells a story from his past which centers around his encounter with a girl whom he first belittles and patronizes. Speaking from his position of occasionally optimistic cynicism, he tries to instruct her about life. But although initially captivated by his words, his supposed student soon reveals the petty contradictions of his nature. Because of this, the narrator realizes that he cannot truly love. He can only tyrannize. But even in his anguish and self-loathing, he cannot escape the calculating introspection that leads him to poeticize his every thought. He reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara, who realizes too late that she loved and lost Rhett, but still relies on her own arrogant charm. “Tomorrow is another day,” she says, but when you’re that level of selfish, tomorrow won’t be better than today unless you make the decision to change your core self. Actually I don’t know what happens. I haven’t read the sequel because Gone With the Wind irritated me so much!
The narrator from Notes both hates and adores the nature that causes him pain. But he knows he is not alone. At the end of the book, he addresses his readership, saying that we have lost touch with reality. And when he imagines readers protesting at being generalized so, he rebukes them, “After all, I have only carried to a logical conclusion what you yourselves didn’t dare to take more than half-way.” He is modernity, honest and personified.
Contrast all of this with Marcus Aurelius! What a stark difference. A Roman emperor stoic, Aurelius believed that everything happens in accordance with nature, and thus there is no true evil. A “ruling mind” can internally reorient experience and dissatisfaction in order to be perfectly at peace. His Meditations are like a journal of notes to himself: reminders and tips for living his own life. “This you must bear in mind:” he writes in 2:9, “what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole; and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things which are in accord with the nature of which you are a part.” The Meditations are full of wisdom. But in denying the reality of evil, Aurelius underestimated its power. He relied on the Soul to preserve virtue, but the aggregate soul of humanity wasn’t up to the challenge.
Still, the Meditations are inspiring. Aurelius had such hope for mankind. He lived a life of measured wisdom and perspective, knowing that his mind was his citadel, and that he could defend it from any external frustration- even using suffering and inconvenience for his own advantage. One of my favorite meditations is 4:1: “When the ruling mind acts according to nature, it so takes the events which happen as to always easily adapt itself to whatever is presented to it and whatever is possible. For it requires no special materials, but moves toward its purpose, imposing only certain conditions. It makes material for itself out of what opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it. A small light might have been extinguished; but when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the stuff which is heaped on it, consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.” Reading Aurelius, he doesn’t strike me as a carefree optimist, but as a man who thoroughly analyzed the world and determined to live rightly regardless of circumstance. He took refuge inside himself: the very place that Dostoevsky’s narrator could not abide.
Why was Marcus Aurelius able to find peace where the Underground Man could not? I’d love to just say the answer is Jesus, but Aurelius wasn’t a Christian. He did, however, believe in “the gods” or a consciousness that controlled the world. Even though he had doubts about eternal purpose and immortality, he believed in the prescribed order of the universe. And I think that sustained him, along with many other thinkers of the time and throughout Western philosophy. When you believe that everything happens for a reason, even if you don’t know the reason or the arbiter, it’s easier to rest. But with the dawning of the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”, uncertainty in the existence of meaning turned into certainty that meaning was a child’s dream. Faith in an impersonal controlling force could no longer silence enough questions. In the infancy of Western thought, Marcus Aurelius could retreat into the order of his own mind. But as philosophy matured, it cut its bonds to God and therefore to order. And now the human thought process has nowhere to go, for Truth has become one hypothesis among many: all equally valid or invalid. We are left asking, “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?”
Postmodernity is a peculiar place. We pursue sacred experience apart from its source. We want the numinous but cannot bring ourselves to believe in it. Essentially, we long to be Marcus Aurelius but we are stuck as the Underground Man. Posting quotes from the Meditations on Tumblr cannot align our identities to its author. “For we have sinned and grown old,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “and our Father is younger than we.” Once mankind believed in a ruling force. But a force is not a father. I admire Marcus Aurelius more than Dostoevsky’s anonymous narrator, but neither of them knew the Way, the Truth, and the Life. At the end of C.S. Lewis’ book, Till We Have Faces, when Orual finally finds rest in encountering the person of Truth she says, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius was real but partial, and obviously it has broken in the confrontation with Modernity’s questions. In order to sustain us, a force must have a face.
Modernity exposed humanism for the dead end that it is and made us realize that the answer cannot come from inside any of us, for our very hearts are fickle. Isn’t that the point of all this post-apocalyptic youth literature we’re currently enduring? The Hunger Games is a good example of the frailty of human goodness. But Christians trust not in human virtue, but in a force that became flesh: a father, a face before whom all questions fade away. In Christ we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,” as Hebrews 6 promises. HE guarantees our life and salvation, not we ourselves. And in him, we really can burn through every obstacle like Marcus Aurelius, but with greater certainty because we can put a name to the hand that controls our fate. Christ takes the disillusioned, tired soul of mankind and gives us back our innocence by reuniting us with our Father. In him, I become a child again and enter the kingdom of God.