Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (“Marcus Aurelius”) is generally revered as emperor and philosopher. Both attitudes are grievously erroneous, and have a bearing to what very serious people have considered, ever since, as the highest wisdom to be embraced. I will presently roll out some (new) reasons why this is so wrong.
What endangered the Roman State? The question has been considered since the Third Century’s turmoil, the time of the “Barrack Emperors”. In 360 CE emperor Julian explained why Christianism was bringing Romanitas down. Christians worshipped a secondary and “evil God” (and that the Serpent, bringing knowledge, was “good”!). Julian removed Christianism’s extravagant privileges (such as the right to execute heretics). However, Julian ruled only three years as Augustus. Immediately thereafter, the Christians came back with great vengeance, burning libraries to the ground.
The thesis that Christianism nearly destroyed civilization is obviously true, and was supported in detail by Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of Rome (eighteenth century). However, it’s not the whole story. In truth, it’s plutocracy which brought Rome down, through a succession of ever more dreadful instruments to insure its reign. Christianism was only plutocracy’s latest weapon of civilizational destruction. Political and intellectual fascisms had arrived centuries earlier, rabid theocracy was only a twist therefrom.
Marcus Aurelius, emperor from 161 to 180 was the last of the “Five Good Emperors” (his abominable son succeeded Marcus at the grand old age of nineteen). Marcus is also considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. Generally revered, he will be condemned here as a stealthy, sneaky, subterraneous yet explicit proponent of INTELLECTUAL FASCISM. Marcus’ elevation of Intellectual Fascism to a virtue explains a lot of things, from the “Fall of Rome” to the present sorry state of world governance.
I agree that this is shocking, and all the little ones will run for cover, squealing: Marcus Aurelius has a saintly, superficially justified reputation (and that, per se, is revealing: Marcus is a bit to philosophy what Einstein is to physics: a naked emperor whom the commons imagine fully dressed; critters prefer to have 140 characters anchored by a few celebrities they adore, like simple baboons adore the alpha females and males).
Even more shocking, Stoicism is supposed to be the behavior one adopts when a victim of fascism. Thus Stoicism is a behavior one would not expect from a proponent of fascism…. Until one realizes that, precisely, stoicism is, par excellence, the behavior in the masses which makes fascism possible. So Marcus fed what made him possible.
So let me severely criticize, as deserved, the following passage of Marcus Aurelius kindly provided by Massimo Pigliucci:
“There are four principal aberrations of the superior faculty against which you should be constantly on your guard, and when you have detected them, you should wipe them out and say on each occasion thus: this thought is not necessary; this tends to destroy social union; this which you are going to say comes not from the real thoughts — for you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts. But the fourth is when you shall reproach yourself for anything, for this is an evidence of the diviner part within you being overpowered and yielding to the less honorable and to the perishable part, the body, and to its gross pleasures. (Meditations XI.19)”
[I don’t understand Marcus’ last sentence, he seems to take himself for god, but that’s besides the points I will make, so I will ignore this obscure sentence. I will address the two “principal aberrations” accented above. They define what wrecked the Roman State, what will wreck any state, and any civilization: intellectual fascism in its purest form for the first one, and even explicit political fascismo for the second.]
“This thought is not necessary.” Says Marcus Aurelius. The emperor calls the apparition of ‘unnecessary thought’ one of the “four principal aberrations”. Sorry, Your Highness. When is a thought not necessary? When it’s not necessary to Your Excellency? And if a thought is necessary, what is it necessary for? Necessary to worship you and your kind, such as your five year old son, Commodus, whom you made a Caesar then, such a genius he was? No Roman emperor had been that grotesque, prior to you. Is that a non-necessary thought?
Is a thought then necessary when it embraces the desire of been guided by only a few thoughts reigning over the entire mind, just as Marcus Aurelius reigned over all men? In other words, is a thought necessary, and only then, when it embraces intellectual fascism? Or is that the big “stoic” philosopher thinks like the general of an army (something he was)..
Another of the Marcus’ “four principal aberrations” is lying… or more exactly “you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts”. In other words, the idea of “bad faith”. To trash and condemn Bad Faith is good. Many philosophers have done it, all the way up to Sartre. But then notice that Marcus Aurelius puts ‘unnecessary thoughts’ in the same category as “Bad Faith”.
Marcus also frowns on as a ‘principal aberration’: Any “thought [which] destroys social union”. Thus “social union” is part of the leading intellectual principles which should rule on the realm of ideas, just as Marcus Aurelius rules on men.
Now, any mental progress will disrupt brains, thus the “social union”. A society which knows “social union” and no revolution is condemned to stagnate mentality until the situation becomes uncontrollable. And this is exactly what happened to Rome the day Marcus died and his teenage son succeeded to him. A spectacular fall, driven by his son Commodus’ fateful decisions, in a matter of days, from which the Roman State never recovered.
Marcus Aurelius had decided that embracing intellectual fascism was the highest behavior, and imposed for more than two decades on 25% of humanity. I would suggest removing that element, that drive to mental shrinkage, from modern stoicism.
Those who know the history of the period with enough detail will not be surprised by my scathing critique. Instead they will realize that this was the missing piece to the logic of the disaster which befell civilization.
Indeed, immediately after Marcus Aurelius’ death Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus (“Commodus”), at the grand old age of 19, inverted all his father’s decisions (after saying he won’t).
Where did Commodus’ madness come from? Commodus, had been named “Caesar” at age 5… by his father, the great stoic parrot. How wise is that? It would feed megalomania, and indeed, Commodus was much more megalomaniac than the present leader of North Korea.
Commodus was accused of being a megalomaniac, in his lifetime. Commodus renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana, the “Colony of Commodus”. He renamed the months of the year after titles held in his honour, namely, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius. Commodus renamed the Roman Senate the Commodian Fortunate Senate, and the Roman people were given the name Commodianus.
Cassius Dio, a senator and historian who lived during the reign of both Commodus and his father wrote that, with the accession of Commodus, “our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.” Soon, it would descend even lower, in part because Marcus’ poisonous ideas would be revered so much.
It is probable that Marcus Aurelius was assassinated by his 19 year old son (officially Marcus died suddenly of the “plague”; but sophisticated poisons were well known, and had been used before in imperial affairs: Tiberius, the second Roman emperor, did not realize, for more than 15 years, that his two own adult sons, both of the most famous generals, had been poisoned to death by Rome’s prefect Sejanus: that was revealed after Sejanus tried a coup, and his accomplices talked). Commodus would kill his own sister shortly after his accession (she had opposed him).
In a way, Marcus’ assassination was well deserved. His superficially noble, but deeply despicable stoicism, and his brazen advocacy of political and intellectual fascism enabled Roman plutocracy to own the entire empire as if it were its own colony.
Whereas imperator Trajan had brought up taxes on the wealthiest to make education free for poor children, Marcus Aurelius went the other way: he did not have enough money to pay the army, when savage German tribes were trying to cut the empire, civilization, in two.
Some may sneer that I am condemning Marcus Aurelius for an unfortunate passage or two. Not so. Marcus’ entire work, both in philosophy, and as imperator, is an extension of his fundamental view that thinking should be restricted to what was useful. As if one could know in advance what thinking will be useful for. In his context, to boot, what Marcus meant by “useful” was what was useful to him, the one who proffered the thought.
Thought reduced to what was useful to just One, the One? How much more stupid and immoral can one be?
Nowadays, we face the fast rise of colossal inequalities which foster impoverishment, be it material, intellectual, or even cognitive. We have to realize that some of the apparently wisest, most respected and ancient philosophy is fully compatible with, and an engine of, this lamentable development.
Philosophy, poorly done, is the ultimate propaganda for the demise of the many by the self-chosen few.