Oldies but goldies kept out of our schools
Posted by Dave Bath on 2011-07-28
Crap happens. It has always happened. It always will. So why aren’t our education systems giving to people some of the best means of dealing with that crap? Tools that never age, are easily available, cheap, and nobody has ever really criticized in the last couple of millenia?
Even fixing up the biased Christianity in our schools, replacing it merely with comparative religion and ethics classes: good, but not good enough. We need to provide kids with the tools for consolation and strength, the classical personal philosophies of the likes of Marcus Aurelius.
It’s deprivation, deprivation bordering on abuse.
Over the last couple of years, contact with a few of old uni friends has been re-established – and a couple of them have been having a hard time. Intelligent folk, decent, crap from the fates, from spouses, from family courts … and there is one bit of advice that seems to have done the most good – and started doing good almost straight away:
Seriously, check out wikipedia on "Meditations" and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who wrote it, check out his wikiquotes, and remember this guy had the weight of the known world on his shoulders, and despite later (unprovable) diagnoses as suffering from depression, ruled pretty damn well, and his notes on how to view the world and the crap happening allowed him to rule well. Have a browse, and if some of it rings true, get yourself the Penguin translation and open it at random – each paragraph stands on it’s own, so even if depression is hitting your cognition as you say, it’s in easy to digest bite-sized pieces. Then come back to me if you want more of the Stoics and the Epicureans.
Well, usually within a day I’m getting emails that are "Wow! Never knew this stuff – I mean, I’ve seen him as, you know, the good emperor in ‘Gladiator’, but …"
… and then will come a few quotes that have struck them, in their situations, as particularly apt and helpful – in a way the bible isn’t. And every few days, for some time, the emails will contain the next quote that has made a difference.
Marcus doesn’t just say "turn the other cheek", he reminds himself how to differentiate between the person and the act, look at the extenuating circumstances such as ignorance making the next act not revenge but teaching, how important it is to focus on your own acts allowing self-respect and that nature has fitted you to endure the crap that comes.
- Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill.
- What’s bad for the hive can’t be good for the bee.
- We humans are made for each other, so either teach them or put up with them.
- Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.
- Whatever the world may say or do, be like an emerald, and keep your color true.
- Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.
- If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.
I’ll get regular emails that include "Oh today I found this quote… and it’s really good for me now".
For centuries, Marcus Aurelius was considered an excellent book for the bedside table (in Victorian times, just next to the bible) to pick up at random, read a thought or two, and think about before lights out. It was considered an excellent "consolation" for sensitive souls beset by troubles, which makes sense as it was written mostly by someone who’d love to have been a librarian, harming no-one, helping everyone, but was forced to go and fight the Germans who were giving lots of grief to the northern empire. (A peaceful man forced to kill is tortured.)
And yet, while we have Christian proselytes in primary schools brainwashing young children with the least useful and least applicable aspects of Christianity, while our governments are pushing chaplains into schools where social workers and people with psych majors are needed, where the Commonwealth Ombudsman says there is no way to actually define when the bastards are proselytizing contrary to regulations, we give nothing to the intelligent kids, especially the "sciency" types, that they won’t reject because they are too smart, won’t reject because it has too little depth, won’t be able to use because it’s too removed from actual emotions.
The "crap that happens" is timeless, the tools to deal with it, with enough sophistication to avoid being simplistic, have been available since the high points of Greek and Roman civilization, the easiest entry point is Marcus Aurelius, who was not an academic, but, like so many people, a professional facing existential problems, a tough job, and pressures from all sides.
And if a kid, or adult, exhausts Marcus Aurelius, they can be pointed to Epicurus ("The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity."), and Epictetus ("First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."), hell, let them work their way through all the Stoics.
Why would this be wrong? Where would be the harm? What is stopping this from happening? Why do we deprive the best and brightest of our kids of the best and brightest consolations in western civilization?
This deprivation is almost as abusive as refusing to teach kids to read and write.
- It should be noted that Epictetus is attributed as inspiration by Albert Ellis, the developer of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, which is quite effective, proven even able, with appropriate work by the individual, to help schizophrenics manage the way they react to their hallucinations – something drugs cannot do, except perhaps in large enough doses to knock out thinking entirely.
- Gibbon‘s marvellous "Decline and Fall" (to my tastes, perhaps the most gorgeous prose with depth, detail and insight in the English language), describing the reigns of Antoninus (through most of which, Marcus Aurelius was pretty-much a partner rather than merely, from the death of Hadrian, the nominated successor:
Antoninus diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
But (Marcus Aurelius’) life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfection of others, just and beneficent to all mankind.
The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
The mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the only defective, part of his character. His excellent understanding was often deceived by the unsuspecting goodness of his heart. Artful men, who study the passions of princes and conceal their own, approached his person in the disguise of philosophic sanctity, and acquired riches and honours by affecting to despise them.
If one’s only defect is to treat people too mildly, to have an unsuspecting goodness of heart, it is surely no vice: indeed, were all the world to have such a defect, it would be no defect at all, but the strongest foundation of that happiest world.
- Marcus Aurelius is the only Roman Emperor still on coins nearly 2000 years later, on the Italian Euro series along with Dante and Leonardo.