Dr. Larry Arnn On Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
HH: It’s that time of the week, the time for the Hillsdale Dialogues. Once a week, I sit down with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his colleagues, or both, and we talk about one of the great works of Western Civilization. We began at the beginning of the year with the Iliad. And today, we are up to 160AD, so we’ve come many, many hundreds of years, and to the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. But before I go there, Dr. Arnn, how are you?
LA: Well. How are you, Hugh?
HH: I’m terrific. I have to say you’ve gone and plucked Matt Spalding from Heritage and carried him away to Michigan.
LA: Light work, yeah. It was easy.
HH: Why would you have one of the Capital’s greatest Constitutional scholars plucked out of the center of the fray and taken off to this obscure state, which is really barely even a state? It exists only by the, it’s sort of a boon, a grant to the poor people of Canada to not have to deal with Michigan. Why would you do that to Matt Spalding?
LA: Well, about Michigan, I’ll say that we really only have one simple task, and we do it always, and we do it easily. We dominate Ohio. But Matt’s going to stay in Washington. He’s going to run our academic programs at our Kirby Center, and we’re doing more teaching there, and we’re going to do a lot more. And we’re going to give a liberal education, including the in founding of America, to the people in that city where it is nearly absent. And Matt is a great guy to lead that effort.
HH: Oh, that is a terrific idea. I did not see that. So though you are plucking him into the Hillsdale family, you will allow him to continue his very important work inside of the Beltway.
LA: Yeah, and you know, he’s been in Washington a long time. He may be too ignorant to actually move back to Hillsdale.
HH: To live among the trees. My second non-Marcus Aurelius question has to do with the movie which I doubt very much that you have seen, Steve Jobs, as played by Ashton Kutcher. Have you seen this movie?
LA: I have not.
HH: Well, he comes off, and again, this is just a, I have not read the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, and so I don’t know whether it is an accurate portrayal. But if it is, Jobs was an angry, bitter, selfish, back-biting, back-stabbing, terrible human being and repulsive, though of course, a design genius and responsible for two of the devices sitting in front of me. And so obviously a flawed, but somewhat genius man. But as I was driving home from this with my son, I said you know, I’ve been covering Plutarch with Larry Arnn, and it occurs to me that Plutarch found no time for men of business or engineers or artists in his Lives. Why was that?
LA: Well, because those things are mechanical, and Plutarch was interested in people who dealt with the higher things, including the highest. And the highest is not politics. It’s what Cicero dealt with, politics as they emerge into philosophy, the ultimate ends for which we live our lives, and politics’ concern with that. Politics has a duty to protect our connection to those things. And so I want to say something about Steve Jobs, because I’m an Apple guy, and fancy, I know a fair amount about him. And I think he, first of all, I think he was a very worthy human being, especially toward the end of his life. Did you know he banned pornography from the App Store? He did it himself personally.
HH: I did not.
LA: And he once answered an email. He would make these little emails once in a while to customers, and they would make national news when he did it. And somebody said Apple is for freedom, and do whatever you want. Why are you doing that? And Jobs replied, if you had children, you would understand. And so, and the rough edges on the man were very great. And he was abusive of people often. On the other hand, that changed over time, and he became much less so. And the people working with him became like a band of brothers. And they still remember him with great respect, and he was not abusive to them. He was an incredibly insistent man, and very insightful, but he stopped being such an abusive man, I believe. And one of the criticisms of this movie is that they don’t show that.
HH: No, they don’t. It ends off, it leaves off in 2002. But what called to mind in the third book of the twelve books of Marcus Aurelius, about which more, the emperor writes, “Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose they self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains. For he who has preferred to everything intelligence and the worship of its excellence acts no tragic part, does not groan, will not need neither solitude nor much company,” and it continues in that vein, very inconsistent with at least his early days.
LA: Yeah, that’s right. And you know, he, first of all, this book that we’re about to read, is different in kind, I think, than any book that we will read. I can’t think of another. And the reason is a very great reason, and that is this book should be your friend and companion for life from the first moment you begin reading it. It’s a very unusual book. I don’t know anything else like it, as I say. And it is immediately available. You should be able to benefit from this book in the first five minutes you attend to it.
HH: That is true, and it’s also, it’s written in an extraordinarily accessible fashion, unlike some of the books that we have worked our way through. You can go to any of the twelve books and dive right in. I want to go to the first one, but first, tell people a little bit about Marcus Aurelius.
LA: Well, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the five good emperors. And you know, emperors come because, beginning with Julius Caesar, but also on the way to there, because of Sulla, the tyrant and conqueror, Rome had been this republic, this balanced regime, in which the Senate and the people of Rome were one thing, and they were an organism. And they each had their powers, and they played against each other. And what happened was various strong men, especially Julius Caesar, and later Augustus, conquered and broke everybody. And they did that by the artful and subtle device of killing tens of thousands of people with soldiers. And Rome was never the same after that. Some people think well, Rome was corrupted by its luxury and stuff like that. The truth is the conquerors killed a lot of people, including Cicero, whom we read last week. Well, after that, Rome was different. And the good emperors were five people who came along in order, one after the other, and what they did was they were the boss now. And what they said went, but they treated the Senate with great respect. And they attempted to rule moderately. And that chain breaks with Marcus Aurelius, who was a very great man, by his son, Commodus. And see, one of the things that happens among these five good emperors is that two, or I may be forgetting, maybe there were three, who were actually not the eldest son of the emperor, and didn’t succeed that way. They were adopted by the emperor in part because they had demonstrated some excellence. And Marcus Aurelius was one of those. Commodus, who followed him, was his eldest son, and proved to be a frightful man. And in fact, in that movie, Gladiator, which is a very good movie, although not true, but partly true, Commodus actually murders his father to get the job.
LA: And that didn’t happen. But Marcus Aurelius is that guy. And Rome is at its peak of extent, and he rules for, what, 20 years, I think?
HH: Yeah, 19 years, yeah.
LA: And in that 20 years, he was, Rome was very rich. And it was very powerful. And it didn’t really grow under him, but it kept what it had, which was nearly everything. And it was coming under financial stress, because they were subsidizing people so much, kind of a familiar story today. And they had those guys who would eventually destroy Western Rome, the Germans. And you know, Germany is this bunch of forest and hills, and it’s very tough. And of his 19 years, Marcus Aurelius spent 13 of them in border wars up by Germany. So he was a good ruler, and he was a very successful ruler, and his rule was constantly troubled, and often miserable.
HH: And at the same time that he did this, long period of war, he would take out his pen. And the Meditations was not, I think it was not, written for public consumption, correct?
LA: Well, that’s the thing. You should understand what you’re reading, because as I say, I don’t know anything like it. It isn’t a diary. It is written privately to Marcus Aurelius himself. But it’s not dear diary, here’s how I feel today, and here’s what happened today. It isn’t that. What it is, is a reminder to himself that often has the tone of commands to himself about the way things are and how he should behave. And they have the tone, constantly, of, sometimes they’re beautiful reflections on the nature of things. But most continuously, very often through them, what they are is statements to himself – you must behave this way and not be miserable.
HH: Do you teach this at Hillsdale?
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: When we come back, we’ll find out when, and to what effect.
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HH: So Dr. Arnn, when do you teach it and how do you teach it at Hillsdale?
LA: Well, it’s in our history reader in the freshman core. And we are changing our core right now. We’re making it bigger, and so not everybody will be taking this class in the freshman year. Right now, almost all do. But it tends to be freshman-sophomore year, and it’s in a book of readings that’s published, edited and published by the college, done by our History Department. And we do an extract from the book.
HH: And which, do you recall, of the twelve books of the Meditations, do you most heavily rely on? Or do you dance about and grab this and that?
LA: Let me see. I have it right here. Let me see if I can, if we do it in a way so I can tell what books it’s from. It’s hard to say. It looks like it’s scattered about.
HH: Well, then, let me begin at the beginning with just a few, sort of a touch. He opens with a long list of gratitudes, a long list of thank you’s. “From my grandfather, Verus, I learned good morals and the government of my temper. From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character. From my mother, piety and beneficence and abstinence not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts, and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” And it continues on for a dozen paragraphs in this vein.
LA: That’s…and think of that for a minute. It’s like everything else. First of all, this is a man who had teachers, and they were wise, and he is grateful to them. And this is a man who in his youth is adopted by the emperor, Antoninus, and marked out to be first, second, and then first in the line of succession. And when he succeeded, he immediately appointed another relation to be his co-emperor, and that relation died pretty soon. But he was, he was preparing himself to exercise the greatest power in the world. And his teachers taught him that there’s a right way to do that and a wrong way to do that. And it doesn’t matter what you prefer with your power. You must use it well.
HH: I also noted in reading up on his biography, he had many children who died, and he refers to this early on in the Meditations as being something he could not effect, so he chose not to allow it to affect him. That seems hard to imagine.
LA: Yeah, and there were so many things in his life like that. He developed a way of looking at the world that meant that his own death was palatable to him, and that he must approach life as a man in tune with nature and reason. And so it’s not that it didn’t affect him. This book is evidence that things affected him powerfully. The book is written so that he may manage the effects properly.
HH: Now at one point, he writes about his religious belief. “To the gods, I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offense against any of them, though I had a disposition which if opportunity had offered, might have led me to do something of this kind.” That’s an unusual way to write about the forces above and beyond you.
LA: That’s…and it’s, if you parse it out, it’s a statement of humility, gratitude and obligation, you see. In other words, he’s been placed in this place. It’s a station. And it’s a station full of trouble. And doubtless, when he first became the emperor, and it was thrilling to him, he had to combat that thrill. He writes this book. You know, and there’s a lot about this we don’t know, by the way. We call it the Meditations, but he didn’t give it a title. Why would he? He’s writing it to himself. The way in which the book comes to us is odd, because there were nine centuries that passed after his death until it emerged. And it emerges in a letter from a Christian saint to another friend, and the way he composes the letter conveying the book gives one the impression that people know about this book, and people regard it as a great good. But that means it had been circulating for a while. But the earliest evidence we have of it is eight nor nine centuries after Marcus dies. It survived all that time. And that’s, and these are his notes to himself, right? He had no plan that we know of to do anything with it. And it’s not written. It’s written as you would think it was written. Do you ever, I mean, I say to you and the listener, do you write down things, or isolate things that you think are good for you, that you read regularly?
HH: I can answer yes to that, because I write books, and I try and put into them those things which most remarkably strike me. Jefferson kept a day book in which he did this repeatedly. I think many people have that practice. I think Churchill had that practice, too, did he not?
LA: Oh, yeah, and he had this fantastic memory. Here’s a story about Churchill you’ll like, and this is extremely revealing to me. In 1940, Churchill did, you know, London’s being bombed, he’s giving these speeches, people are trying, people in power are trying to force Britain, in Britain, are trying to force Britain into a negotiated peace. It’s a time of incredible turmoil. And there are reports of Churchill’s magnificent bravery and equanimity. Well then, he says to John Colville, who worked for him one time, he says, there’s a prayer, and the writings of George Borrow, that was said at the Siege of Gibraltar, which is about the time of the American Revolution. He said go find that for me, I want it verbatim. And Churchill had a wonderful memory. Here’s the prayer. I’ve memorized it. He says fear not the result, for either they end will be an enviable and magnificent one, else God will preserve our rain upon the waters. Now Winston Churchill wanted those words to carry around with him all day, you see? And that means he was afraid.
LA: And he had a way to confront that fear. And that way is the same as this way, in Marcus Aurelius.
HH: Now in Chapter, Book Two, it begins, and by the way, do you carry this book with you? Am I right about you telling me that?
LA: Yeah, I used to get, back before the e-books, I used to keep, I had a little copy of it, and I took it with me in my briefcase customarily. And now I have it on my Kindle, and I, well, I use the Kindle reader, but I use an iPad – Steve Jobs.
HH: I think this first line of Book Two is especially appropriate for a college president. “Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happened to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”
LA: Well, you know, I have a better life than that. But that’s a good thing to remember.
HH: It is a good thing. I’ll be right back.
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HH: If you are not yet signed up to receive the Hillsdale monthly speech digest, Imprimus, you can do so for free, absolutely for free, and it’s got a mailing list of, what, a million and a half people, Larry Arnn?
HH: Okay, I was only off by 1.2 million. 2.7 million people are getting Imprimus every single month, and you can, too, for free, by going to www.hillsdale.edu. And all the Hillsdale Dialogues, every single one of them, are available for free as well, www.hughforhillsdale.com, or there’s a link at www.hughhewitt.com. If you’re a home schooling mom or dad, it is a great way to introduce you or your children, junior high and high school, to these great works, and then to dive into them. All right, Larry Arnn, he was a stoic. Would you explain to people what stoicism is?
LA: Well, first of all, it’s a little controversial whether he was a stoic. But stoic comes from, stoicism comes from, it’s a word for porch, and the first Stoic philosophers sat on porches. And they are a development, you might say, on Socratic or Platonic philosophy. They come to see the world as reasonable, as a nature that makes sense. And they try to fit themselves in that nature. And they think that this, the reason in nature in which one can participate, it’s connected to the idea of the natural law, that this reason and conforming to it is the human capacity and the human work. And so living well means living in accordance with nature. And you will die, and that’s part of your life, and the right disposition to that, and all pains as well as pleasures in it, is governed by this nature and your reason, and not by your wishes. And so it’s, you know, we think of stoicism as, you know, we have the modern word stoic, and that means somebody who’s pretty tough and pretty quiet about it. And their enemies, their main opponents in the world are the epicureans, who thought life is pretty random, and the pleasures that we have in it are natural to us, and we should focus on those. It doesn’t mean living like a Sybarite, just eating chocolates and taking drugs all day. But it does mean that our purpose is to enjoy our higher pleasures. And the Stoics read it a little different. Our higher pleasures must be connected with living rightly under nature, even if that’s painful.
HH: So why do you say it is controversial that Marcus Aurelius is a Stoic?
LA: Well, he read the Stoics, and he was connected to some of them, but what we have from him is these Meditations. And they’re not exactly a tract of Stoicism. They are much more, as I say, self-commands. And they are very noble and very beautiful. And you know, I’ll read you one of my favorites if you want me to.
LA: 3-12, and what, there are chapters, I think there are eight chapters, and therein the chapters are divided into little sections, so in Chapter 3, Section 12, he says, this is like a good thing to read to yourself when you get up for a day and you’ve got a difficult day. And I’ll say something about that. If you lead a really busy life, you know, the curse of my life is that I have too many good things to do. And I never, I don’t have enough time not to be doing them. And that shows something that’s a failure in the human condition, right? I like to say I like all the parts of my job. They just compete with each other for time.
LA: So get up in the morning this way. If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment, if you can embrace this without fear or expectation, can find fulfillment in what you’re doing now, as nature intended, and in super human truthfulness, every word, every utterance, then your life will be happy. No one can prevent that.” Now that’s a recurring theme to this man, who’s besieged all his life on the frontier, living rough most of the time, and an emperor of the greatest power in the history of the world.
LA: He is saying that you can be self-sufficient in your happiness. And he’s reminding you of that. And when you read a thing like that, at least for me, it’s bracing. It reminds me that I’m supposed to try to do a good job at each thing, and take my satisfaction from that. And I enjoy it immensely. There’s another place, I’m looking for it. But before I find it, I can tell you what it says. He says people who go off on these vacations and say if I could only get away, you can get away, he says, at any moment. You can get away within. A vacation is always available to you.
HH: We’ll come back from break. We’ll continue that conversation.
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HH: “Every moment, think steadily as a Roman, and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection and freedom and justice. And give thyself relief from all other thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius was one for focus, Larry Arnn. He really was very intent on focus.
LA: Very much, and he, one of the things that happens, because you see, and you have think about his life. It’s like your life, except more so, everyone’s life. There are pressures all the time. Things are always going wrong. You have moments of joy. You have moments of fear. You have moments of affliction, right? And his way was to look up from those and locate himself so that those seemed small. And it’s really lovely how he does it. I just enjoy this book immensely. I have from the first time I started reading it. I have certain passages of it that are in my day planner, the one I use on the computer. And I see them every week or so, and it’s just good for me to do it.
HH: Do you have any other ones that come to mind that you want to put out there?
LA: Yeah, yeah. I’ve got to get my pages done right.
HH: It’s radio.
LA: “Then what can,” and this is, I think this is in 4-17. Maybe it’s 2-17. I can’t maneuver my book very well. “What then,” he says, “Duration of things is momentary. Nature is changeable. Perception is dim. Condition of body, decaying. Soul spinning around. Fortune unpredictable. Lasting fame, uncertain. What then can guide us? Only philosophy, which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain.” So he makes a list of all of the things that are terrible about human life. And you know, an emperor is supposed to be exempt from those things, like lasting fame? Everybody the man meets treats him like a god. And he doesn’t take that seriously, right?
LA: The power within. Sometimes, he loves the expression the god within, meaning like we would say today, the divine spark within us. That has to be safe and free from assault.
HH: It is very reminiscent of Ecclesiastes. We did not read Ecclesiastes, but vanity is vanity, all is vanity, sayest the preacher. There is so much similar to that in this, and of course, he would not have been, I shouldn’t say it’s certain, but there’s no reason to believe he would have been familiar with ancient Jewish texts.
LA: No, but you know, Christianity was about, and so he makes one reference to it here. I can’t…
HH: I missed that.
LA: I can’t remember the reference. It isn’t important. But you can see a way in which Christianity could arise from Stoicism, because Christianity, you know, what is Jesus’ advice, right? It’s very often look up to God and don’t worry about the things of this Earth. They will take care of themselves.
HH: I found it. It’s in the chapter, Book 11, 3rd paragraph. “What a soul that is, which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body and ready either to be extinguished or disbursed, or continue to exist, but so that this readiness comes from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy as with the Christians, but considerably, and with dignity, and in a way to persuade another without tragic show.” I’m not sure what he means by that, but that was the reference to it.
LA: Yeah, and I don’t think, see, the Christians are thought to be at this time…
LA: To the Roman, they’re thought to be bigots and atheists, because they won’t accept the gods.
LA: And to people like him, and it hasn’t become a, you know, Christianity, this is in 170, and what, Constantine accept Christianity in 330, roughly something like that, I think?
HH: Yeah, 325, I think, yeah.
LA: And so it’s a long way until Christianity becomes a prime subject. And then of course, there’s a lot of persecution before Constantine accepts it. But it isn’t a prime subject with Marcus Aurelius, but there are things in it, as you rightly point out, that are very like it. And that, we might read a little Boethius when we go next, and you’ll see that Boethius is a kind of Stoicism made otherworldly. I mean, it’s very remarkable, the constellations of philosophy.
HH: And so with a minute and a half left to our break here. How would you advise someone to go about the Meditations?
LA: It’s easy. That’s the great thing about it. It doesn’t matter what order you read it in, although you can read it through. It’s just great. You should just start reading it. Start at the first if you want. It doesn’t matter if you start somewhere else. Mark the passages that you really like, and then if you read it enough, and I urge you to do so, you’ll start to remember them, and they will be of comfort to you.
HH: Here is the last one I’ll give you. “Consider when thou art much vexed or grieved, that man’s life is only a moment. And after a short time, we are all laid out dead.” So the Obama presidency’s not that bad.
LA: Yeah, “Death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful, and hence neither good nor bad.”
HH: But he does not tell you not to do your duty. That’s the interesting tension, Larry Arnn. You can be very fatalistic, but he is at no place a shirker of duty.
LA: And also, not fatalistic, really, you see, because the god within you is operating. And your being is made real and full when you act purely in accordance with that. And so to let your desires control you, even wild animals do that, and rutting humans and tyrants, from Phalaris to Nero, in other words, emperors that he repudiates, so it is not just fatalistic, it is also sublime.
HH: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I do not know where we go next, America. I have to consult with Dr. Arnn offline, but I will post it so that you can stay ahead of us. We’re at 160AD, and we can go in any number of directions, but I defer to the president of Hillsdale College. Dr. Arnn, thank you. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at www.hughforhillsdale.com. You can also go to www.hughhewitt.com, click on the button which is in the top right hand column corner, or go directly to www.hillsdale.edu, and not only enroll in Imprimus, but also enroll in their Constitution and American History courses. You can learn all that you really need to know from www.hillsdale.edu.
End of interview.