Below is my conversation with Marcus Aurelius, book 5 entries 16-19.
In case my pencil marks are unclear, I’ll reproduce them.
16 – “souls are dyed by thoughts”
17 – practical, realistic
18 – or perhaps, strength is folly and weakness is wisdom
19 – I agree. We each have a divine element.
These are all interesting entries, but I think the most interesting is #18. Marcus Aurelius gives an intimation of a very deep, mystical, counter-intuitive Christian thought. He writes,
Nothing happens to any creature beyond its own natural endurance. Another has the same experience as you: either through failure to recognize what has happened to him, or in a display of courage, he remains calm and untroubled. Strange, then, that ignorance and pretension should be stronger than wisdom.
My response to this (as recorded above) is “or perhaps, strength is folly and weakness is wisdom”. Few people understand the meaning of this. That’s what makes it mystical. But we see it appear in 2nd Corinthians, chapter 12:
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul would rather boast of his weaknesses than his strengths… so that Christ’s power may rest upon him. What does this mean, exactly? How does it work in the real world?
Well, consider power. Every day we read the news and a new man in power is toppled by sexual harassment or, even worse, rape allegations. Numerous women stand up to accuse them and the times we live in are starting to favor their cause. Why is it that power is so unprincipled? People are talking about this subject everywhere. In the news, on Facebook, in dinner conversations. Have the powerful all committed some kind of hideous and secret Faustian bargain, finally made public to us all?
This is an exaggeration. Some powerful people are in fact principled. But the sad fact is that far too many are not. There is no way of knowing the number. But judging by the general loss of culture, religion, and old-world values, I would guess that more powerful people than not are unprincipled, which is to say, the majority of them.
But in Corinthians we read about something entirely different. Paul tells us that it is better to boast of our weaknesses, to feel weak than to feel strong. What ramifications would such beliefs have on the person who holds them?
First, consider pride. When we are proud, we make the people around us feel bad about themselves, insecure, or even worse, envious. First we end up hurting the feelings of those who are insecure. Then we excite the envy of those who are proud themselves. What goes around comes around. Pride causes hurt in our environment, and then our environment causes hurt to the proud. Hence the proverb, “Pride cometh before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Most people don’t mix science and religion. But the truly intelligent realize that religion is in fact the seed of science, and science is nowhere near as powerful as the ignorant masses think it is. Sure, it erects skyscrapers. It sends us to the moon. But it will never predict the inner shells of an atom. It will never predict a human being’s decisions. As much uncertainty as there is in the atom (see, quantum mechanics) so much the more there is in a human being’s mind and free will. The real purpose of science is to figure out, empirically, what the religions have told us all along. That in fact, pride does come before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. There’s a deep logic within scripture.
Now consider the alternative. Let’s say you are humble. Then you don’t make insecure people feel even more insecure. You don’t excite the envy of the proud. You neither cause harm nor receive harm. You live in harmony with your environment.
Truly smart people are not proud. Pride comes from insecurity. Geniuses like Bach and Shakespeare were not proud. They had nothing to prove. They delighted in their talents, thought neither too little nor too much of them, and enjoyed their creativity. Consider Bach’s letter to the Margrave presenting the Brandenburg concertos, often thought the apex of Baroque music if not the apex of Western music itself.
As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.
There’s a piety and humility in this letter that we do not see in today’s pop stars. But the irony is that today’s pop stars are but mice compared to a mountain. Does this mean that humble people are actually smarter and more creative than the proud and self-publicized? Just think, how many writers do we read from centuries ago who lived proud, honored, powerful, and enviable lives? Most great writers did not! And the writers who write today who heap fame and fortune upon themselves, and flit in and out of mansions… well, chances are they won’t be read a hundred years from now.
If you are powerful, then you are constantly at odds with your environment. You cause harm and receive harm. As a result of this, you must constantly be a boxer. You must adopt the mindset that the best defense is a good offense, and punch back every time someone lashes out at you, so that they don’t do it again. You are literally entering into civil war with a city and nation called Pride. Better that they get hurt, and not you, so you use cunning and force to subdue those who might envy you. Does this sound like anyone we know? Uh, Trump! He’s just one example, but a very good one. He is constantly lashing out, going on the offensive with every senator, billionaire or John Doe who attacks him. Is it not weird that he spends time on Twitter lashing out at ordinary citizens, like the father of a son who got arrested in China? It is just simply wired in his brain, the belief that the best offense is a good defense, that everyone is out to get you and you have to knock them down so as to discourage others. And this is a natural and inevitable consequence of being proud.
I won’t spend any more time discussing the relative value of pride and humility. But returning to the subject of power, it becomes clear that one must be powerful without being proud. And that is hard to do. Because power gives you access to so many goods that, as Marcus Aurelius would say, “you don’t have room to shit”. Hence the need for principled power. We see examples of principled power, even though they are rare. I am tempted to think Barack Obama an example, although I do not know him. Perhaps also Nelson Mandela. Maybe Robert Mueller. He isn’t out there bragging about his broad mandate to investigate the White House. He’s out there just quietly doing his job.
It’s clear to anyone with eyes and ears that we have an epidemic in America, and even in Europe too, of unprincipled power. That’s what happens in democracy when there’s an abundance of wealth and opportunities but little support for principles. As the Western world moves further and further away from its roots, in Greek philosophy, the Abrahamic religions, all of the various mythologies which, when told and retold, taught us not to be hubristic, to do the right thing, reiterating that virtue is a reward in itself, well, it’s only a natural consequence that powerful people think Their way is the Right way because, as it turns out, they are not so complicated, they are simple, and they have no more rationale, no more justification or philosophy, than the fact that it Feels Good.
It’s when we are weak that we are strong, because it’s only then that we see clearly, and objectively, and are capable of discerning the real value of our actions. Without being able to discern the real value of our actions, it is impossible to say or do good. But there’s more to it than just that. As said before, it’s a mystical concept. Like one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Every time you revisit it, you learn something new. It might also be the case that only when our natural selves are submissive, that our divine element can rule us. If we are one part natural, one part divine, then the pride and the “frenzy for renown” that Aurelius talks about are the desires of our natural selves, not of our divine counterpart. We must heed the divine within us. It is capable of the greatest good.
On parting, let’s return to the paradox presented by Aurelius. “Strange, then, that ignorance and pretension should be stronger than wisdom.” I think it is nicely answered by Paul, when he points out the paradox of strength and weakness. What seems strong is often not, and vice versa. One might say that strength is folly, and weakness wisdom. Does it sound to you like Bach thought himself especially strong? No. But his music was fated to be heard for more than three centuries after his death. The countenance of strength is weakness; the soul of weakness is strength. Because discernible strength is nothing more than mortal flesh; hidden strength is divine spirit. To be weak is to be strong.