|Stylish and practical, yet somehow it never caught on...|
I discovered this because I was doing some digging into the Romans of Roman times. Not actual digging, with a spade or anything. I'll leave that to Baldrick and his highly trained team of miners. I've been doing virtual digging, on the internets.
You ask me why. I will tell you why. It's because of this dude:
|If I was not made of stone I'd kick yo ass for stealing my bra-hat.|
Live a good life. If there are gods, and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
The bra-hat, tragically, like the thong-scrunchy, the suspender-necklace and the petticoat, er, petticoat, failed to make it through the Great Fashion Cull at the end of the 80s, when all of us who had survived the decade signed a solemn pledge to Start Being A Bit More Sensible About Our Wardrobe Choices. But Marco's stoic bit of fence-sitting has lasted. In fact, now that we have Facebook - something the Romans inexplicably failed to create first - this bon mot is gaining credence among a generation who no longer have the comfort of cranial-lingerie to sooth their existential-crisis-induced headaches.
It appeals to us for a few reasons:
1) It requires no burden of investigation on our part. All bases are covered. Good gods, bad gods, no gods, it doesn't matter.
2) It requires no great inconvenience on our part, beyond living a "good" life, which basically means helping the odd old lady across the road and trying not to go on any random killing sprees.
In essence, it translates as "Do What You Think Is Right", which in turn means "Carry On As You Are".
You may have guessed by now that I didn't start this post just so I could talk about the Roman habit of applying corsetry to your noggin. That only accounts for thirty-seven percent of my motive, give or take. Nope, the Aurelius Aphorism is such a widely adopted viewpoint that I thought it was worth taking time out from our busy schedule of Whitney-bashing just to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Rather than hit you all over the head with what the Bible says (and the Bible is heavy, so you'd probably need to borrow one of Madonna's special pointy bras to get adequate cushioning), I'm just going to pose a few questions. So strap on your favourite Gossard and let's start challenging some world views.
Live a good life.
1: Whose definition of "good" are we going to adopt?
At the time Marcus Aurelius wrote these words, it was considered perfectly acceptable for Roman men to keep young boys as slaves, and to use them for sex. Would we be happy with that definition of "good"? If not, what makes our definition of "good" the, um, "right" one? Have we stopped to wonder whether our personal definition of "good" is anything other than our personal definition of "comfortable"?
2: What if you haven't lived a good life? What if you've stolen or cheated or killed? What if you are a prisoner to drug addiction, or prostitution, or infidelity? Everyone makes poor choices from time to time - what if yours resulted in destroying a marriage, or destroying a life? What if you are going to be in prison for the next twenty years? Is there a way to turn a bad life into a good life? Do the bad things just get swept under the carpet when you decide to start being good? Would we be happy with a justice system that told a convicted rapist he was free to go if he promised to be good from now on?
If there are gods, and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.
3: Marcus is rather presuming that a "just" god is one who agrees with our definition of "good". We get to decide what is good and bad, and if a god disagrees with us then they must be wrong. Is that not just a tiny bit arrogant? Is it possible that a god's understanding of right and wrong might be better than ours?
4: A god who cares how devout we are is, by Marco's argument, unjust. Does that necessarily follow? What if a god's definition of "doing good" includes being in a relationship with that god? Cast your mind back (or forward) to the confusing days of teenager-hood. No doubt your parents burdened you with utterly unreasonable rules - "No TV before homework" or "No juggling chainsaws on the trampoline" or "No supergluing your sister's bra to your head". Did they make these rules just for the sake of defining right and wrong, or was there a purpose behind them? Were your parents only interested in seeing whether or not you obeyed, or were they somehow hoping that family relationships, say, might be improved if there were fewer trips to casualty and the headmaster's office? In other words, is there a relational purpose behind our views of right and wrong? Cast in that light, Marcus is basically saying "If a god wants to relate to you, then you shouldn't want to relate to him." - which is just a bit childish, really.
(Interestingly, Marcus hugely undermined his argument here by convincing the senate to declare that his wife was a goddess. There were temples dedicated to her, and, by decree, when people got married they had to pay their vows before her altar. The fact that his wife was, by all accounts, not the least bit faithful to poor old Marcus was beside the point. I guess his first draft, "If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them, unless it's my wife, in which case worship her or I'll turn you into lion snacks" was just a bit too wordy to be considered properly stoic and wise.)
If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
5: What if you have no loved ones? What if no one saw this noble life that you lived? It's all very well for Marco Ruler-Of-The-Civilised-World Aurelius to spout this kind of thing - when he finally carked it he was mourned by a whole empire. He probably had a funereal procession of thousands of weeping subjects, all decked out in their finest black ceremonial bra-hats, singing great songs about him. Oh, and yes, as was the custom at the time, he was also deified upon death. According to my sources (which weren't just wikipedia) he was still being worshipped as a household god over a century later. Most of us are not going to get that kind of treatment. If you are friendless and alone in this life, I'm afraid Marcus offers you little comfort.
So there you go. Five concerns with Marco's philosophy:
- How can we know what "good" actually means?
- What hope is there for people who have failed to be "good"?
- Have we automatically assumed that our sense of justice is better than God's?
- Is it really unjust of God to care whether or not we utterly ignore him?
- If there are no gods, or no just gods, what hope is there for people who face dying alone and anonymous?
The Bible has heaps and heaps and heaps and heaps to say about all these issues, of course, which I'd love to tell you some time when I'm not about to go to bed. But whether you believe there is a God or not, I hope this has raised some doubts about the validity of Marcus Aurelius' seemingly-sensible slogan. If you are going to adopt it as your world view, learn it in Latin. Then it will at least sound impressive, even if it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
PS: I couldn't resist this...
The Bible on sex:
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
Your lips drip nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon...
(Song of Songs 4:10-11)
Marcus Aurelius on sex:
As for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut, and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus.Heady stuff. No wonder his goddess-wife was playing away. And with that I rest my case. Good night all.