Past Recast: The philosopher king and his prescriptions

December 04, 2022

Accept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together but do so with all your heart— Marcus Aurelius

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ccept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together but do so with all your heart— Marcus Aurelius

While reading Mathew Arnold, the Victorian evangelist, I came across his adulatory remark for Marcus Aurelius. Arnold describes him as, “perhaps the most beautiful figure in history.” That remark contained enough persuasion for me to read about him.

For me, Marcus Aurelius was not “the most beautiful figure in history” but he came very close to perching on the elevated status of Plato’s philosopher king. He, indeed, saw philosophy as a far higher calling than ruler-ship. “Alexander, Julius Caesar, Pompey,” he wrote, what are they to Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? These men saw into realities, its causes and its material, and their directing minds were their own masters. As for the former, they were slaves to their ambitions.”

That saying is reflective of his passion for scholarly pursuits that transpired in his book, The Meditations that offers a “glimpse into the mind and soul of a ruler.” This treatise on politics is a personal confession, never edited or intended for publication. It was probably meant only to serve as a guidebook for his son and successor, Commodus.

But it is of immense value (despite its antiquity) to anyone aspiring to enter the world of power politics. My purpose in writing on Marcus Aurelius and his book is to draw the attention of Pakistani ruling elite across institutional spectrum to a person who lived in the Second Century AD but surpassed everyone around us in the art of governance and in political insight.

Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 CE, ascended to the throne in 161 and died in 180. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors, and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire. According to some historians of the Roman Empire, of all the Roman emperors, he, according to historian Dominic Lieven, has the highest reputation.

This is due partly to his achievements and partly to the admiration expressed for him in surviving contemporary sources. The Meditations is a big contributory factor in what makes him stand even taller than Julius and Augustus Caesars.

In the lines that follow, his views on politics and the rights and obligations of the ruler are summarised for those wanting to enter politics or anyone harbouring interest in political theory. The Meditations, the thoughts of a philosopher-king, have been considered by many generations one of the great books of all times.

Although they were Marcus’s own thoughts, they were not original. Some political theorists opine that they are basically the moral tenets of Stoicism, learned from Epictetus: the cosmos is a unity governed by an intelligence and the human soul is a part of that divine intelligence and can, therefore, stand, if naked and alone, at least pure and undefiled, amid chaos and futility.

A central theme in The Meditations is the importance of analysing one’s judgment of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.”

Marcus Aurelius underscores in The Meditations that no ruler would have survived had he challenged the principles or institutions underpinning a grossly unequal society that partly rested on slavery. Class difference in the society under his suzerainty is bound to unravel. Marcus’s perception of the qualities required in a ruler has a lot to offer to our political leaders.

A ruler ought to be in the possession of mellow wisdom and mature experience. They must be kind, patient and an accurate judge of men’s character and actions. The person in the saddle is expected to ignore gossip, accept criticism, even when it is unfair, and stand far above jealousy, pettiness or anger. They should be tireless, thrifty and deeply responsible and study issues in great detail but be quick to grasp their essential principles.

Marcus loathed rulers’ pursuits of fame and glory, mocking men who sought immortality through the eyes of posterity. All fame was shallow and fleeting in his view. Under the influence of stoicism, Marcus thought humans to be rational and social beings. Thus, to him the human nature required them to value reason above everything and to act with benevolence towards their fellow men.

It is pertinent here to add a word about Stoicism. It is a school of philosophy that hails from ancient Greece and Rome in the early parts of the 3rd Century, BC. It is a philosophy of life that maximises positive emotions, reduces negative emotions and helps individuals to hone their virtues of character. He identifies four greatest virtues as ‘justice, truth, self-control and courage.’

For constructive statesmanship or the initiation of original trends in civil policy, Marcus had little time or energy to spare as he had to quell insurgency. But despite what his detractors say, Marcus was a philosopher king who rendered lasting impact on political history of the world. The field most congenial to him seems to have been the law.

Numerous measures were promulgated and judicial decisions made, clearing away harshness and anomalies in the civil law, improving in detail the lot of the less-favoured—slaves, widows, minors—and giving recognition to claims of blood relationship in the field of succession. Our politicians must read The Meditations to learn about their obligations to the people at large.


The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore



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