13 June, 2024


A Philosopher Emperor 

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Dr. Charles Sarvan

The titles of books can be misleading. I recall the surprise of a colleague when she saw me carrying a work titled ‘Why is Sex Fun?’ In that book, biologist Jared Diamond explores why human sexual behaviour is so very different from that of animals, even though we are descended from them and still retain some of their behavioural characteristics. The book’s subtitle is ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. The title of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s work, ‘Religion Without God’ (Harvard University Press), seems to be a contradiction, if not an absurdity. Can an atheistic doctrine (the negating particle ‘a+ theo) be called a religion? But then atheist Einstein said he was religious: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty… this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.” Some have argued that in true Buddhism, that is, as it was preached, there are no gods; even that Buddhism is not a religion but a set of moral precepts and wise, compassionate guidance. So much depends on our definition and concept of terms.

The title of the work that occupies us here, ‘How to Think like a Roman Emperor’ by Donald Robertson (New York, 2019), can initially be misleading. Did all Roman emperors think alike? Not being a Roman emperor, how can I possibly think like one? Again, the book’s subtitle clarifies: ‘The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’.  This brings us to Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) and to Stoicism. Admittedly, I have long admired Marcus Aurelius and, to alter words from Ben Jonson, have honoured him “this side of idolatry”. As a note has it, “Marcus Aurelius was the first prominent example of a philosopher king. His Stoic tome ‘Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.” 

Socrates, at his trial at which he chose death, said that an unexamined life was not worth living. Aurelius began each morning by thinking about, planning and preparing for the day. The second phase was when he, as emperor, had to act. Finally, at night he reviewed the day and his conduct during it. The ‘Meditations’ was not written for others: it was a kind of “stock taking” of himself, his reactions and behaviour. Aurelius warns himself not to become a Caesar, that is, a dictator. He tried, as far as custom and circumstances permitted, to reduce the pomp which surrounded him (Pope Francis comes to mind) preferring a simple, unpretentious life. As the Greeks knew, we can never see our own face, except by reflection in a mirror. A true friend can act as a mirror, showing us as we really are. Aurelius, therefore, welcomed criticism. Severe on himself, he was patient and kind towards others. As history shows, this extended even to those who had rebelled against him. I wonder if Forster’s comment in his novel, ‘A Passage to India’, that truth is not truth unless spoken gently, derives from the words and example of Marcus Aurelius. Truth, if spoken unkindly, serves only to alienate and antagonise. It may silence the other but does not convince or persuade. In his ‘Meditations’, Aurelius records and rebukes himself when he falls short of the standards he has set himself. The emperor wondered how he could estimate the worth of an individual, and decided it was by seeing to what things that person gave value. In modern terms, it doesn’t mean we must not take an interest in cricket, fashion or food but how much importance and value do we place on such things? Aurelius as emperor couldn’t retreat to his library but had to act. When war broke out on the frontier, he left the safety and comfort of Rome and placed himself at the front with his soldiers. Nor was he solemn and humourless. He is reported to have been good-humoured, affectionate, and close to his family and friends. Before age and responsibilities burdened him, he had hobbies and, as was expected of Roman youths and young men, was active in sports. 

At the end, knowing that he was dying; that doctors and medicines couldn’t help, the Emperor calmly and courageously declined food and drink so as not to engage in a futile prolongation of the inevitable. Such an attitude and action are the result of long and serious thought, and preparation: in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (Act 1, Scene 4) it’s said of a man that he faced his own execution as one who had “studied” how to die. Aurelius must have known the Latin saying that someone who is not afraid of death cannot be enslaved. Changing time and place, John Donne in a sonnet that begins “Death be not proud” argues that since a person can die only once, having killed him, it’s Death that dies. And in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Act 2, Scene 2) Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their deaths”.  As he was dying, Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, managed to send a text message to his wife in the language he loved, Latin. It consisted of two words: Noli timere (Don’t fear).

 Though I am in no way a specialist in either, I am struck by important similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. For a start, the cornerstone of both is rationality. The Buddha lived from 563 – 483 BCE and Zeno, credited with being the founder of Stoicism, from 334 – 262 BCE. And long before Alexander the Great reached India in 326 BCE, there were links between India and the West. Did Asian Buddhism play a role in the development of Western Stoicism? If research has been done in this area, it has not received publicity: the most effective way of “sinking” a book is to ignore it. Take, for example, Martin Bernal’s thesis in his ‘Black Athena’ that the roots of Western Classical civilization were Afro-Asian. So too, many a male must have been outraged by Martin Stone when he argued in ‘When God was a Woman’ that the first divinities before whom we bowed our heads or prostrated ourselves were female, particularly the ‘mother goddess’. In Sri Lanka, that lucid and refreshing, if radical, work by Dr K S Palihakkara, Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’ (Stamford Lake publishers, Pannipitiya) has not excited much, if any, public discussion. Dr Palihakkara’s declared effort was to rescue and cleanse Buddhism from the accretion over time of “myths and miracles and metaphysics”: these took away what was unique to Buddhism, making it more like other religions. 

So much of our attitude to life and death depends on our eschatology, our ideas and beliefs about death and the afterlife.  The Stoics were atheists believing that at death we disintegrate into and merge with the material, a material which is itself constantly changing. Whether there’s a similarity here with Buddhism, I leave to the reader. The cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, as of Buddhism, include wisdom (the product of reason and thought), moderation and justice. With Buddhism, it’s not mere verbal and public protestation but actual practice, and so it was with the Stoics. Stoicism was a way of life, assiduously trained in; exemplified by character and conduct. 

While in Islam representations of the Prophet are forbidden, Christianity has many paintings and sculptures of Jesus; Jesus with different expression, including pain, even agony. In contrast, the Buddha is almost invariably depicted as being serene. When we lived in Bonn, I used to admire the swans on the Rhine, their sedateness and dignity but, looking more carefully, one saw that these were the result of their feet working constantly, often against the current. So too, the serenity of the Buddha is the result of thought and effort: as is the calm associated with the Stoic.       

Anger is temporary madness. Because a deranged person is not controlled by reason, it follows that someone who is angry, someone whose anger is not under control is, for the duration, mad. True Buddhists and Stoics do not give in to anger; they remain detached; free and above this “madness”. 

Stoic calmness, the result of mental control, must not be mistaken for emotionlessness. To feel pain and sorrow is human: what counts is our reaction to them. The operative word here is “acceptance”. Sorrow, while it has its impact on us, must be met with wisdom; pain, with acceptance. Thorns hurt, and the Bible advises us not to increase the pain by kicking against them. The Stoic image was of a dog tied to a cart: the dog can either walk along or make things worse for itself by struggling, futilely and painfully. A 20th century philosopher asked for the courage to change those things which can be changed; the serenity to accept what can’t be altered, and the wisdom to know the difference. Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, brings in modern terms and concepts to an understanding of Marcus Aurelius, among them the Stoic reserve-clause. Our expectations are ‘reserved’ for what is within our sphere of control: the rest is up to chance or, as believers would say, “Deo volente” or “Deo gratis”. (When I asked a friend why he often said “Inshallah” though he had never been a Muslim and was in fact a thorough atheist, he replied that it was in a philosophical and not in a religious sense: “If my effort and chance will it”.) As with emotions, so with our desires: of importance to the Stoics was (a) what we desired; (b) to what degree, and (c) how we set about achieving these desires.

Central to Buddhism and Stoicism is an awareness of transience, known in the former as “Anicca”. Heraclitus (500 BCE) famously declared that all is flux. We cannot step into the same river twice because fresh waters are ever flowing in. For better or worse, we are not the same as we were several, or even a few, years ago. We change, others change, relationships change, the world around us changes. All is flux. And as T S Eliot, borrowing from Hinduism, writes in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, only a fool fixed in his folly thinks he can turn the wheel on which he turns.

I read that there’s a tribe which mourns birth and celebrates death, and Shakespeare in his major tragedy ‘King Lear’ suggests with ironic wit that all infants cry when they are born because they have come to this world! Freud suggested that in as much as we have an instinct for preservation and survival, there can also be a wish for death, for a return to a previous state of non-existence: see terms such as ‘Todestriebe’ and ‘Thanatos’. James Thomson in his poem, ‘City of Dreadful Night’ writes:

This little life is all we must endure,

The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,                   

We fall asleep and never wake again;

Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,

Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh…

“And the cessation / of life’s peacock scream / will be relief” (Liebetraut Sarvan).

In Book 1 of his ‘Histories’, Herodotus relates the story of a mother who, full of love for and pride in her two sons, prays in the evening to the goddess Hera that she bestows on them “the greatest blessing” that can fall on mortals. The goddess answers the prayer, and the young men are found in the morning – dead. Diagones (412 – 323 BCE) who had a sharp sense of ‘humour’ requested that his dead body be thrown over the city walls so that the wild animals could have a meal: no longer having consciousness, what was done to his body didn’t matter. Respect for a corpse; gravestones and monuments; memorial services, prayers and rituals are for the living, and not for the dead. Buddhist nirvana means the final deliverance from suffering and sorrow: an escape into freedom effected by ceasing to be.

Given these conceptions of life and death, it is not surprising that suicide (not on impulse; not in despair or in a state of temporary madness) was accepted; indeed, in certain situations it was admired and highly honoured. Shakespeare’s Hamlet contemplating suicide and the “sleep” that follows it, saw death as a “consummation” devoutly to be wished for. Each individual must decide, with utmost clarity and calmness “whether the time is come to take leave of life” (‘Meditations’, Book 3). Or as Aurelius expresses it elsewhere, the chimney smokes and I leave the room (Book 5). To the Stoics, lamentation at death was for the loss that the living experienced, and not for the departed:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

(William Wordsworth)

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) wrote: “I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world.”  And so I return to the serenity of the Buddha and to the calm of Stoicism: the aim of both was (through rational thought and conscious, controlled, behaviour) to minimise pain and to increase peace and happiness. Both Buddhism and Stoicism are positive and life-enhancing.

Addendum. Given the nature and expression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, I draw attention to what I wrote in ‘Colombo Telegraph’, 1 February 2018, under the caption ‘Religious doctrine and religion’. If we say that Christianity is a gentle, or Buddhism a compassionate, religion what we mean is these faiths as they were taught – most certainly, not as they are practiced in private and public life. I suggested a distinction between religious doctrine and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. Religious doctrine has a divine or semi-divine origin or is from an exalted, exceptional, individual. Simplifying, one could say: While religious doctrine is ‘divine’; religion is a human construct.

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  • 11

    ………….”I wonder if Forster’s comment in his novel, ‘A Passage to India’, that truth is not truth unless spoken gently, derives from the words and example of Marcus Aurelius. Truth, if spoken unkindly, serves only to alienate and antagonise. It may silence the other but does not convince or persuade.”……………….
    I have tried to project this view in CT but only received backlashes from some. ……………………………..
    Just as an added note:…………….“that the first divinities before whom we bowed our heads or prostrated ourselves were female, particularly the ‘mother goddess’.”
    In the Baghavad Gita, the three divinities of Hinduism were : Krishna Vishnu and Shakhthi, the last called Mother God. She is the archetypal goddess representing the female energy of the universe. …………………………….
    Some gems from your article. Just in appreciation. How so acceptable in this world.
    ……………….” it’s not mere verbal and public protestation but actual practice, and SO IT WAS with the Stoics. Stoicism was a way of life, assiduously trained in; exemplified by character and conduct.”
    ………………” the serenity …………….is the result of thought and effort (underneath and unseen): as is the calm associated with the Stoic.”
    I loved your reference to Liebetraut Sarvan. No pun intended presumably !! but have read only one of her poems.
    I really give immense thanks to your last paragraph – the addendum.

  • 7

    “Religion is a human construct.”
    Ending your wonderful article by the above statement, is fully endorsed. Especially if you meant “Organised Religion with an Heirarchy”
    Some at the top of these pyramids expect absolute devotion and highest level of respect forgetting their immortality and fallibility.
    These pyramids then have made rituals the most important practice of their religions for their own perpetuation and left the essence of the Teachings of the Great Teachers, only to be used as and when like some currency as it suits.

    • 2

      The statement “Religion is a human construct” will hold just as well for religion without organization or hierarchy.
      How religions that were rebellious against authority became tools of authority is immaterial to their being human constructs.

      • 3

        True. That is why I said ” the above statement, is fully endorsed. Especially if”.
        …Fully endorsed -Especially if does not preclude your contention – it is inclusive.

  • 4

    Thanks, Prof.Sarvan,
    for this serene and gentle essay in which you demonstrate to us that all this feverish obsession with defeating COVID-19 is in many senses ridiculous neglect of the truth that we are placed here only for a limited period.
    So, when we suffer, we should be able to look back on when there was happiness, and not suffering. Your commencing your examination with the life of Marcus Aurelius who lived a life in which he had to shoulder responsibilities greater than almost any of us has to bear emphasises the fact all these balanced attitudes are possible while playing a full part in the lives that we are called upon to live.
    All the reading that you have done, and all your efforts to educate us have helped you to write what sounds like a swan song. Is that what it amounts to? You have shown how irrelevant is that question. Yes, “Inshallah” about captures it.

    • 6

      Dear SM.
      OMG – do you realise what you said. Did you get carried away about the reference to the swan in his essay.
      “………….you to write what sounds like a SWAN SONG. Is that what it amounts to? “
      Heaven forbid.
      No No. I wish you Prof. Sarvan, many long years to write more and more.
      May good luck be with you.

      • 4

        Dear Ferryman,
        Yes, I did realise what I was saying. I value Prof. Sarvan immensely, and send him the occasional brief email. No wish to tire him with long tales of woe.
        I have never met him, but we had both studied in the same school – at Gurutalawa, and he looks back on those days with great nostalgia. I was in the school many years later.
        Yes, I’d like to see many more articles by him, but he writes these wonderful articles, dogged as he is by ill-health – and shall I merely say “other problems”. After all, this is a public forum. He always writes constructively.
        I know that we are not supposed to say what I have, but don’t you see that “acceptance” is what follows from all that he has said. CPS is gentle and compassionate, but also wise and courageous.
        As for swan songs, there is a witty two-line poem about them by Coleridge, but this is not the place to quote it.
        I’m not sure that Prof. Sarvan would agree with “justice”, yet would appreciate his sentiments. So long as we don’t have perverts spewing obscenities, I think that Prof. Sarvan would welcome sensitive responses. Both your responses, too.

  • 0

    In our present world, even with Covid19, staying alive is God’s blessing.
    To a physician, it is ultimate triumph of science.

  • 3

    Prof. Sarvan,

    Einstein should be properly considered ‘agnostic.’

    After listening to the music of a famous violinist, probably Yehudi Menuhin, Einstein said something like this ( I am paraphrasing): “Now I know there is a God in heaven!”

    He had also said : “Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame.”
    He changed his views over time, and was probably atheistic in his old age. But in his earlier years, he used to wonder about Spinoza’s God.

    • 5

      All of us in societies with theistic societies are conditioned into believing in a superhuman in charge of everything around us.
      It is a hard, slow process because the fetters of the mind are tough and complex.
      That may be why agnosticism gives believers the benefit of the doubt.

    • 9

      Extracts from Einstein’s so-called God letter

      Princeton, 3. 1. 1954

      Dear Mr Gutkind,

      The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.

      Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, that is, in our evaluations of human behaviour.

      With friendly thanks and best wishes,


      A. Einstein

      • 5

        Prof. Sarvan,

        I am aware of that letter.

        It doesn’t prove he was atheistic. It only means he rejected all religions, but he was open to the possibility there is some God beyond human understanding. To tell you the truth, I have felt the same way since I was in Grade 9 back in Jaffna, but I call myself an agnostic for the same reason.

        Einstein has said he didn’t want to be called an atheist. Given his prominence and popularity, lack of social acceptance of atheism could also have been a factor for him to say so. But today in the U.S., most youngsters are non-believers.

        • 7

          “open to the possibility there is some God beyond human understanding”’
          Does not the “beyond human understanding” be the reason for the need of a God.
          Firstly there were the Gods of Thunder Lightning whatever Nature poured forth as energy and people deified them, due to “beyond human understanding” at that time. Right through civilization, human beings had someone over and above them in command as it were in their societies. So everyone looked up to someone always one step higher and higher, because they could not understand Nature scientifically.
          Latest scientific thought feels inclined to a view that there are no absolute particles, but only waves and packets of energy, at the smallest level. This is post Einstein, so his beliefs were of that time past. At that lowest level, there is no exactness in positions or speeds but only tendencies or many possible paths. Feynman diagrams helped this supposition.
          The days when the electrons, hadrons etc were considered as definite particles, are over.
          That is why Nature is so unpredictable or fickle. Any one of the possibilities can arise at any time of the reaction of waves and packets of this concentrated energy. That is why there is constant change – a fact of Nature.

  • 6

    Part II.
    So understanding Nature is the key. It is in accepting the fact that whoever you pray to, Nature is the final arbiter, overriding everything by its unpredictability. That is why only some prayers are answered !!
    But to accept this principle, needs much mental strength.
    Elaborating further, I venture to SUGGEST ( Note: Venture into the unknown) that Buddha understood this and hence he said salvation is within you and to leave Nature alone and fall in line by accepting everything and facing it with equanimity. Tune in to Nature. So Karma is Nature, (The Way of Life) but now corrupted to mean crime and punishment. That is why some good people suffer while some corrupt enjoy life. It is the unpredictability.
    But for your own sanity, he suggested a Philosophy of the ten precepts, so your short journey in life is made as pleasant as possible and to cleanse your own mind of defilements. Even medically,
    1. A life of acceptance without stress, mainly anger and hatred, is considered good.
    2. Moderation in everything (in food and wine and enjoyment of worldly pleasures !) is good.

    • 8

      PART III
      Parinibbāna Sutra (passing away) of the Buddha.
      Aniccā vata saṅkhārā etc………..
      • All things are impermanent
      • They arise and pass away
      • Having arisen they come to an end

      It is the ceaseless unpredictable movements of waves and tiny packets of energy. Nothing solid. After all, mass is really concentrated energy.

      • 4

        Dear MyView,
        What you have outlined sounds right.

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