Sunday, August 26, 2007

(18) Duty

"Do not act unwillingly, nor selfishly nor without self-examination,
nor with divergent motives. Let no affectation veneer your thinking...
Moreover let the God within be the guardian of a real man...You
should stand upright, not be held upright."
[Marcus Aurelius, MEDITATIONS, Alfred Knopf, Everyman's Library,
1946, p.14.]

Comment: Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of the Roman Empire,
wherein no man below him would be allowed to hold him upright.
At the top of his society, the ruler, his only true recourse was to rely
upon his own cognizance. That is not to say that he did not have
counselors, but in the end all his decisions and the actions that
ensued from such were ultimately traceable back to him.

Marcus Aurelius was deemed a "good" emperor by historians,
albeit the list of most Roman Caesars before him would make
nearly any decent man look good. Still, Marcus had the good
fortune to have a good family and also an adoptive family that
tutored him in the craft of statesmanship. Included in this, he
embarked upon the study of Stoic philosophy--and became a
proponent of the Stoa.

Now this isn't to say that Marcus Aurelius was a pious do-gooder.
He felt obliged to carry out his duty as Emperor. And this sometimes
meant standing in judgement, making harsh decisions, and also
waging war to protect his Empire from so-called barbarians. The
Stoic idea of doing one's duty is not necessarily as we might see
it today, especially from a religious perspective. Marcus Aurelius'
duty was to protect the Imperium from perceived destructive forces
from both within and without.

Interestingly, at the other end of the social spectrum was a freed
Roman slave--Epictetus, who also became a leading Stoic during
the time of the Empire. He was a teacher of the Stoa, concentrating
on virtue and morality.

Perhaps it would seem that Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are
extreme examples of the Stoa. Curious, but both truly suffered.
The Emperor surely was melancholy, as it seeps through in his
Meditations. It could be he was not all that comfortable in his role.
As Emperor he had oft to make personally harsh decisions that
likely roiled in his mind. On the other hand Epictetus was mistreated
as a boy, actually crippled by a cruel master. But Fate ultimately
provided him a master who saw to his education and eventually
gave him his freedom.

These two famous Stoics had different duties in life, and the only
thing they held in common was to follow their duty as they saw it.

One's outlook on duty must somehow impact on their accomplishment
of such. "Duty" as the Stoa presents it is not necessarily full of a list
of "do's and dont's," such as you might find in religious prescriptions.
Rather, the Stoa only asked that one try to be virtuous and act
naturally towards one's duty. The Stoa saw few issues when it came
to serving one's State or Nation or even Empire. For the Stoics these
societal constructs were systems necessary for the benefit and
protection of humanity.

Today we might be more inclined towards Epictetus' role and the
duty involved as a teacher. It perhaps seems more gentle. Still,
there are other duties, rough duties that are necessary in this world,
that seem less attractive. Fate thrusts us in these categories of duty.
The concern, always, is that we face our duty steadfastly, doing such
as virtuously as we can.