The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Marcus Aurelius

by G. L. F.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 915-921

A Lady was asked recently whether she liked the novel she had begun to read. "Yes," she replied, "I see the heroine found a gospel in Thoreau, so the book ought to be interesting." "Gospel finding" is no peculiarity of this generation. Carlyle would have said that it is common to all ages. But the gospels we find nowadays are very different from those our fathers or grandfathers loved and studied. Kingsley, Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, have been superseded by Tolstois, Thoreaus, Maeterlincks, Emersons. Signs of the times. But besides these modern writers, classics of a certain type are being more generally studied in England than they used to be. Much help is undoubtedly derived from many of the noble souls which still live for us in their books, and it would be useless as well as seemless to attempt to dissuade anyone from such studies. But there can be no doubt that young people are liable to think that such teachers as Marcus Aurelius, Thomas à Kempis, Pascal, Plato, Goethe, &c., can take the place of the Bible. A few books, as Emerson has pointed out, come to us as a revelation, like a sudden blaze of light which blinds us to all else. We can see no theory of life which does not tally with that of the author under whose spell we have fallen. But gradually our minds become accustomed to the charm, and we begin to realise again that there is no single book which will suffice for all the varied phases of life, no single book except the Book of books. An old divine once wrote, "No man hath ever lived long enough to learn the wisdom of the Bible; no man hath ever lived to sound its depths; no man ever will. For it is more full of meaning than is the sea of water, its word is deeper than a gulf profound." So difficult is the study of this great book which lies on everybody's shelf. And yet how few have really studied their Bibles. They study other books, read them repeatedly till they gain every shred of knowledge which is to be got from them. But the Bible? They know the words by dint of hearing them read and repeated. But the real meaning--the honey which is concealed in the heart of the flower?

No. there can be no question as to the necessity of spending more time studying the Bible. It needs to be studied more carefully, more systematically, more regularly, and more lovingly than any other book--more than any other ten books put together. Any one intending to read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, would do well to consider whether or not his Bible has been sufficiently studied. Some, doubtless, will be able to answer in the affirmative, and for such the following suggestions have been written.

The teaching of Marcus Aurelius "at this day enjoys a wider currency and exercises a more invigorative appeal in the field of natural religion than any other extra-Christian interpretation of the universe." [Preface in Dr. Rendall's translation of the Meditations (Macmillan & Co.). This edition of Marcus Aurelius will be found to be most useful on every respect.] Why? Because the guiding principle of Marcus Aurelius' life was to be "true to that inward and implanted power which keeps a man unsoiled by pleasure, invulnerable by pain, free from all touch of arrogance, innocent of all baseness . . . to be a combatant in the greatest of all combats, which is the mastery of passion . . . every hour staunchly as a Roman and a man to resolve to do the work in hand with scrupulous and unaffected dignity, affectionately, freely, justly." He was a perfect gentleman as defined by Horace [Est animus tibi, sunt mores et lingua, fidesque. "Your mind is yours, your manners and language, and your loyalty."] "one that above all other things contended especially to know himself . . . a gentleman of all temperance." Some may have noticed that the great Emperor stands near the entrance of the reading-room in the British Museum, and he seems to be there as a reminder that even the "thirsting after books" is nothing compared with the thirsting after righteousness. "It is high time to give heed to the order of which you are a part, and to the great disposer of whom your being is an effluence." [II., 4.] The keynote of his Meditations is the idea of life in conformity with nature. He believes that he was an essential factor of the vast universe, as necessary in a small way to the world as water, air, and light. He could see all else--sun, moon, stars, birds, beasts and flowers fulfilling the same laws of their existence, and his own aim was to do the same--to attain to self-mastery by concentration of aim. That he was not as stoical as he aspired to be seems evident; those constant self-reminders tell a tale of suffering and struggle that make him a pathetic figure. His life was one incessant fight--he found that it was more like wrestling than dancing. What an earnestness! What a noble determination to choose and live the highest! Whenever he was tempted to repine he would strive to apply the principle--"not, The thing is a misfortune, but--To bear it bravely is good fortune." [IV., 49.] Whatever came into his life, whether pleasant or otherwise, all came, he felt convinced, because it was in the interest of the universe, of which he was a part. to question fate, or to be crushed by it, was wilfulness or weakness. "What can direct our goings," he asks; [II., 17.] "One thing alone--philosophy; which is to keep the deity within inviolate and free from scathe, superior to pleasures and to pains, doing nothing at random, nothing falsely or disingenuously . . . accepting the apportioned lot . . . and finally in all serenity awaiting death."

Marcus Aurelius must not be ranked with the other stoics. They fell into many excesses and mistakes from which the great Emperor was free. He was true to the highest he knew, and that highest was the fruit of much study. His philosophy was eclectic, rather than strictly stoic. He was broadminded enough to leave many questions unanswered. He felt that there was "a divine particle" within him; he believed in the existence of "the gods"--"felt thro' what he felt within himself was highest." He seems to doubt at times: "if indeed there are gods . . . if there are no gods." But he would not have understood such scepticism as we find in Byron. His doubt was only the result of that uncertainty which is the basis of all faith, religion, and morality. His questionings were akin to such thoughts as we find in Whittier's lovely lines:

"I know now where His islands life
Their fronded palms in the air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care."

No one who reads the Meditations carefully can fail to notice the prevalent sadness. Almost bitterly sad. It was the result of that constant struggle without the comfort of the faith of Christ. He was a man of the temper of the Ulysses, so marvellously conceived by Lord Tennyson. Marcus Aurelius only had that one thought to comfort him?--

"Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods."

And yet through all the austerity of stoicism, through all the sadness, there is a bright thread of poetry. We find him watching the grace and charm which belong even to the consequents of nature's works. [III., 2.] He could see the ideal loveliness of old age, as well the ravishing charm of youth; he, like George Eliot, hardly ever looked at a bent old man or a wizened old woman, but he saw also with his mind's eye that past of which they were the shrunken remnant.[Scenes of Clerical Life.] On one page we find him thinking sadly--"many grains of frankincense on the same altar; one drop sooner or later--it makes no difference";[IV., 15.] and on the opposite page are thoughts on the self-sufficiency of beauty. "Is the emerald less perfect for lacking praise?" He quotes a passage from Homer, and adds, "As autumn leaves thy little ones. And as the leaves too the crowd who shout their heartening plaudits or heap their curses, or in secret cavil and give; as leaves, too, even those who will succeed to fame hereafter. These all, and the like of them are but--

'Blossoming buds of the spring time'

which the wind scatters, and a new foliage clothes another wood." [X., 34.] Or he reminds us how the Pythagoreans bid us "meditate upon the heavenly bodies pursuing their everlasting round--their order, their purity, their nakedness. For no star wears a veil." [XI., 27.]

What a beautiful earnestness; and yet with the deep admiration all must feel for this great man comes a suspicion that there is something wanting. There is. One word of homely advice before trying to find what it is. Never read Marcus Aurelius at night. His Meditations are, like the proverbial fruit, gold at dawn, silver at noon and lead in the evening. Read Marcus Aurelius in the morning to brace your mind, in the same way as you take a cold bath to invigorate your body. In the evening, when body and mind are weary, go to Him who has promised comfort to the weary and the heavy-laden.

There is a strange resemblance to Pascal's sad ascetic nature in Marcus Aurelius. Both of them, with all their greatness, seem to have ignored all the possibilities of happiness in life; as if one always looked at the skull and cross-bones when in full health to prevent oneself being too happy. There is an infinite beauty to their natures. But--

"Renounce joy for my fellow's sake? That's joy
Beyond joy; but renounced for mine, not theirs!
Why, the physician called to help the sick
Cries, 'Let me, first of all, discard my health!'
No, son! the richness hearted in such joy
Is in the knowing what are gifts we give,
Not in a vain endeavour not to know!
Therefore desire Joy, and thank God for it." Browning.

Yes! Joy is wanting in Marcus Aurelius' theory of life. His stern nature knew not real joy. He never would have sympathised with a nature like Burns, whose keen sensibilities gave us the poems which express love, friendship, sorrow, regret and self-abasement in such living words. Was it not Byron who thought the lines--

"Had we never loved so blindly,
Had we never loved so kindly,
Never met and never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted"--

the sweetest language? Such poetry would have been incomprehensible to Marcus Aurelius. The stoics, generally, did not think much of poetry, and doubtless they would have advised Burns to consider his latter end and be ashamed of such sentiments. There is no want of nobility in Marcus Aurelius, only a want of humanity--that humanity which can be found in another great man, so unjustly called cold and heartless--Goethe to wit.

But what does humanity mean? Where must the line be drawn? For may not humanity degenerate into weakness? True. And the question is a difficult one. The momentous point is just this: not what is the highest; that all must recognise dimly; but how far a craving for love and sympathy is legitimate. Many will say it is one of the purest yearnings of the heart, God-instilled in those who have a capacity of deep feeling and intended not only to give grace and beauty to "life's unquiet dream," but also perhaps to educate men through suffering. Ernest Renan, one of the most sympathetic admirers of the great Emperor says, "S'il pŕcha, ce fut par trop de piété. Moins resigne, il eut ete plus juste; car, surement, demander qu'il y ait un spectateur intime et sympathique des luttes ue nous livrons pour le bien et le vrai, ce n'est, pas trop demander." [Marc Aurèle (Paris, 1882), page 269. Google translates the quote as "If he sinned, it was through too much piety. Less resigned, he would have been more just; because, surely, to ask that there be an intimate and sympathetic spectator of the fights that we deliver for the good and the truth, it is not, to ask too much."]

In order to gain a just perception of Marcus Aurelius, the life of the man himself and the history of the period must be allowed to tell their tale. How can his book, for instance, be really understood if the reader does not feel that all those earnest words were written in camp? All books, or to be more accurate, all complete works in prose or verse should have an atmosphere. The atmosphere of Marcus Aurelius' book is war. The Emperor detested the use of arms, but he waged war because he knew that it was his duty to do so. The Roman Empire was threatened by a dozen or more savage and warlike tribes, which were being driven westward by another barbarian race. Rome had to resist an invasion more severe than any since the Punic Wars. Nearly the whole of the Emperor's life was spent away from Rome, away from his books, away from all the wise men and philosophers he had summoned to his court. It was in the solitude of the camp, under northern skies, amongst the uncongenial surroundings of warfare that he used to sit of an evening alone in his tent and meditate on the vanity of human passions, and remind himself of what life and duty mean. It was in his tent, perhaps some glorious sunny evening, that the visions of past days, old memories, and absent friends inspired him to write the chapter [Book I] in which he recalls all that he owes to his relatives, his friends, and to the gods. [Renan, Marc Aurèle, page 259.] Can we wonder that such surroundings, such occupations, should eventually have led so noble a mind to complete self-mortification? Probably all passion died within him; so that hardly a wish, no hope, no longing remained. Only the one earnest desire to do his duty as a Roman and a man. Most likely not even that longing of noble souls, the wishing for more light, more knowledge, more truth and goodness after death than have been found on earth, despite the struggles, the earnest prayer, the deepest love, not even the faintest hope of such a consummation after death can have brought brightness to his heart.

Sad indeed! But since then the belief in immortality has given the world a more cheerful face. The conviction that this life is but a stepping-stone to higher things has given men more joy which was unknown to Marcus Aurelius. But his book will still be read and loved so long as there are men who love the true and upright, so long as there are men who realise the earnestness of life, and need the helping hand of--

"One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward."

G. L. F.

Typed by Blossom Barden June 2021