Good morning. What do you think your day holds in store for you?
Marcus Aurelius knew, and told us right at the beginning of his Meditations, just after he'd finished thanking all those who had made him what he was: a well-educated, self-disciplined and effective Roman emperor.
"Begin the day," he advised, "by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial."
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus might have expanded his list of noxious types considerably if he'd had e-mail. Think of all the messages he missed from the bitter, the angry, sanctimonious, tedious, humorless and censorious. Plus various other categories of crank, all united by the same urge to tell somebody off if not an emperor, then at least an editor.
Marcus Aurelius lacked not only e-mail but all the other modern inconveniences, from telephone to television. No wonder he had time to write in solitude even while directing affairs of state and conducting never-ending military campaigns.
There are indeed some advantages to being an emperor, at least one who lived long ago. It turns out that the greatest consolation for lacking some modern technological advances is to be free of some modern technological advances.
How do they get that way, those who seem to live only to trouble others? Marcus Aurelius had a theory about that: "All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil."
But this emperor and sage was not about to snub such types. On the contrary, it was part of his stoic, introspective genius that he could see himself in them, and decide to rise above it.
I remember a matriarch from Virginia who had grown deaf in her old age, but whose every rounded vowel still reflected the Old Dominion's creed of duty and self-control. I once asked her how she managed to be so sociable despite her isolating handicap. "Why," she said, "you just rise above it!"
You just rise above it. There was once a venerable lawyer in Pine Bluff, Ark., named N.J. Gantt. The new editorial writer in town asked Mr. Gantt to check out a particularly acerbic editorial. He soon got a call back from the old gentleman. "There's nothing libelous about the editorial," the older man assured him, "but why would you want to say such things?"
Good question, and one the editorial writer had no answer for. I still don't. It may be perfectly legal to do some things, but that is not a good enough reason to do them.
Mr. Gantt's was the kind of question Marcus Aurelius might have posed. "Whatever is being done," the emperor advised, "accustom yourself as much as possible to inquire, 'Why is this man doing this thing?' But begin with yourself, and examine yourself first."
The other day, an outfit here in Arkansas opposed to the usual definition of marriage as between a man and a woman put out the list of all those who had signed a petition to insert that traditional definition of marriage into the state constitution. Why publicize their names? For no apparent purpose except to harass those who had exercised their constitutional right to petition their government. And to make them a target for retribution.
Circulating such a public record is perfectly legal, and perfectly petty. Like publishing a list of all the citizens in the state who have a concealed-carry permit. That's been done, too. Why do such a thing except to embarrass them for exercising their constitutional right to bear arms?
What turns some of us into the kind of crank who cannot tolerate disagreement? How do they get that way? Here's my theory: They lack some quality that allows them to move graciously through life. So they strike out against those who do not mirror their own every opinion or inclination.
They seem to live in a purely abstract world in which all that counts is their argument with the real one. They are unable simply to disagree; they must quarrel. They seem unable to tolerate the natural differences out there in the world, and are determined to make it conform to their own idea of perfection.
Strangely enough, that same distance from ordinary life may be the one quality most lacking, if not absent, from some of the finest ethical guides, including Marcus Aurelius. They rely on reason, not grace. Or just simple charity. There is something humorless, lifeless, about such books a remoteness. As if they were preaching an inhuman perfection rather than a little human charity.
It's as if the great emperor had never looked up at the natural world all around him, which at every turn shouts not perfection but grace. And drives out pettiness, leaving no room for self-absorption.
Ever notice how a gray, overcast day will bring out the green, green everywhere against the blue? On such days the outdoors glistens. It's as if all the world were saying: Don't be so hard on others. Or on yourself. Even a gray day, especially a gray day, can bring beauty. How can you be intolerant if you will only … look!
Maybe that is what explains life's malcontents, and even those philosophers who prescribe happiness, but do so only stoically, sadly, dully, through reason rather than revelation. They must never have looked around.