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:
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.