Louis A. Markos marcus aurelius barack obama

After weathering such mad and depraved emperors as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, Rome was blessed by a succession of five good emperors who brought stability and prosperity to the empire from 96-180: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The last of these emperors was not only a good general, efficient administrator, and just ruler; he marked the closest the ancient pagan world ever came to having a true Platonic philosopher-king.

In his Meditations, a series of Stoic reflections written in the mode of Seneca, Aurelius yearns for a one-world nation united in peace. He rejects extravagance and personal glory to serve Rome and to defend her from the barbarians who would tear her apart. Reflecting back on Aurelius’s reflections, the great Victorian utilitarian John Stuart Mill once wrote that it was a tragedy that Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome while the enlightened Aurelius (rather than the brutal Constantine) was on the throne.

Mill’s argument sounds compelling on the surface, but it is problematic. The historical Aurelius, far from being a friend of Christianity, persecuted the church. Though Aurelius did not leave a memo explaining his reasons for adding to the number of Christian martyrs killed by Nero and Domitian, there is a single intriguing sentence in his Meditations that offers a clue.

In book XI, chapter 3, Aurelius makes his only direct reference to Christianity: “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 dispersed 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 considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.”

Aurelius does not accuse Christians of being evil or rebellious or even ignorant. He views them as obstinate, as stubborn stick-in-the-muds who simply won’t get with the program. He refuses to be impressed by their willingness to give their lives for Christ, for they do so—so it seems to him—out of an anti-social orneriness that disrupts the noble philosopher-king’s grander vision.

I would suggest that the best way to interpret Aurelius’s frustration with the church is by way of a Christian document that dates to 150 (about 25 years before the Meditations). In the Epistle to Diognetus, the reader encounters an exalted view of a universal church that cuts across all countries, races, and cultures. Each Christian, the writer explains proudly, is a full citizen of whatever state he lives in, but he is also, at the same time, a resident alien. All Christians follow the law, yet they are above the law. They do not pay back evil for evil and do not practice infanticide. They share all they have, but they do not share their wives. They dwell in the world but are ultimately not a part of it.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius makes clear his desire to build just such a universal empire, a world without borders that cuts across all cultures and countries. Could it be that Aurelius saw the church as a competitor to his vision of universal brotherhood? As it turned out, Constantine tried himself to realize Aurelius’s dream of a one-world empire, but he found that he needed Christianity as the glue to hold it together.

Like the Roman-stoic emperor, the Victorian-utilitarian Mill yearned to lose himself in a greater cause that would swallow the individual. They were both, in their own way, ethical secular humanists who obeyed, not a personal god but an impersonal rationality, not revelation from above but the inner light, not accountability to a divine Creator but duty to idealistic principles.

Though there are some who believe that president Obama is a “hidden” Muslim or a “secret” communist, I think that the troubling pronouncements and decisions made by the president are better understood if we compare him to Marcus Aurelius or John Stuart Mill. Obama does believe in peace and brotherhood and unity, but his vision for achieving those goals does not rest on fixed, divine standards of personal and societal morality.

I do not mean to imply by that statement that Obama is not a Christian. I mean, rather, to suggest that whatever the nature of his Christian beliefs, his ethical secular humanist vision trumps those beliefs. Whatever the nature of his faith, he does believe that his vision of universal choice and tolerance is a godly one, and he is therefore frustrated—as Aurelius was frustrated—by any person or group that is too backward or pig-headed to jump on the bandwagon.

If Obama were emperor, and thus did not have to answer to the Senate, he would not kill Christians or make them give up their faith, but he would force them to conform to his sense of human “rights” and “dignity,” including paying public lip (and tax) service to such things as gay marriage and publicly subsidized birth control and abortion.

As long as the Christians in his empire were willing to pay public homage to the cult of the emperor, Aurelius was happy to leave them alone to indulge their own personal beliefs in the privacy of their homes and meeting places. Obama too has no desire to raid private homes; however, if he had the power, he would most likely forbid churches from publicly proclaiming the Bible’s definition of homosexual behavior as sinful, Catholic orphanages from turning down gay couples wanting to adopt, and Christian hospitals from refusing to perform abortions.

I do not think that Obama perceives himself to be an enemy of the Catholic Church, and yet, he is clearly irritated by their (to his mind) obstinate refusal to join his “noble” goal of emancipating the world and bringing universal tolerance. “Am I really asking so much?” the annoyed face of the president seems to ask. “Can’t you cut me some slack, and let me usher in utopia by opening up the floodgates of unrestricted personal choice? Extend me some Christian mercy, and take pity on all those people who simply want to find happiness in the way that they define it.”

In the second chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo offers Gandalf the Dark Lord’s Ring of Power, but he wisely refuses. The wizard knows that if he were to possess the Ring, he would use it out of pity and thus become a worse tyrant than Sauron. As Tolkien’s friend, C. S. Lewis, knew, the tyrant who only seeks power takes a vacation now and then. But the one who is doing it “for your own good” will not rest until he has brought his utopia into existence. Indeed, out of pity for those he wants to help, he will silence all those too obstinate to join his brave new vision.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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9 replies to this post
  1. Yes indeed and well put! Ideology is the handmaiden of Evil, and those whom you mention are ideologues. Somewhere Chesterton has a fine essay on how medieval man was more sophisticated than we because he understood Evil, not as a cinema caricature tying girls to railroad tracks, but as perhaps a good or likable person with a sinful flaw. Charm, attentiveness and small kindnesses were thus reported by everyone who knew Hitler. At core Hitler becomes one with Marcus Aurelius and Mill and, yes, Obama.

  2. Dr. Markos: “If Obama were emperor, and thus did not have to answer to the Senate, he would not kill Christians or make them give up their faith, but he would force them to conform to his sense of human “rights” and “dignity,” including paying public lip (and tax) service to such things as gay marriage and publicly subsidized birth control and abortion.”

    Is it fair for me to assume that if you were emperor, you would not kill non-Christians or make them give up their faith (if any), but you would force them to conform to your sense of “God’s laws,” including refusing them any legal right to such things as gay marriage, publicly subsidized birth control and abortion?

    Other than the fact that you disagree with President Obama on those issues (and perhaps on others), what exactly is the point of your thought exercise? President Obama seeks to realize and enact values he believes in–who among us doesn’t, either in public life or in private life? Indeed the Ring of Power is dangerous, but it’s dangerous to everyone: liberals and conservatives, Christians and Muslims and secularists alike.

    • Jack, if he is a follower of Christ, then no, he would not force you. In all the New Testament, there is not one spot where Yeshua instructs his followers to force anyone to believe and follow. He calls to you. He does not order you. There have been many claiming the name of the Christ throughout history, who, by their fruit, showed themselves false. Yeshua never calls for the deaths of those who refuse to put their faith in Him as Savior.

      • Billiam: “he would not force you.” That’s good to know, because it often seems that some Christians want to pass laws–like laws against abortion–requiring people to follow Christian views. I’m glad to hear that tolerance is the Christian way.

        • Everyone has a religious worldview – the way they see the world and what they believe is right and wrong, whether they identify a god or not. So while you say that “some Christians want to pass laws-like laws against abortion-requiring people to follow Christian views,” I could in turn say “some pagans want to pass laws-like laws allowing abortion-subjecting society to follow pagan views.”

          I think what this article depicts is this idea that all of us have a desire for a utopian society with prevailing social, theological, and political ideologies. And no matter what, our ideologies will impose on others’. John Stuart Mill’s idea of utilitarianism and the greatest good for the greatest amount of people means that the minority’s viewpoint will be ignored. Your idea that a woman ought to be able to abort a fetus is contrarian to my idea that life – all life – should be protected.

          The problem is that the implications of our social movement will not be based on the foundation of tried philosophies and theologies but on the backs of individuals who can persuade the majority in society. So, just as you distaste the idea of Christians bullying others by passing laws that appeal to their understanding of morality, Christians distaste the idea of representatives of other worldviews bullying others by passing laws that appeal to their understanding of morality.

          While I’m a Christian and I hold to a strict understanding of the Bible, I also am a strict constructionist of the Constitution. I can’t expect others to agree with me about my biblical viewpoints, but I do feel that as a fellow American, I can expect people to treat the constitution with a type of reverence or set of rules which we all agree to follow… even if those rules seem counter-cultural or hinder progression. For me it serves as that yellow line on the road. I can drive on my side, and you can drive on your side. But the problem is when someone feels that their idea of “ethical secular humanist vision” trumps that of the Constitution (this article dealt more with that viewpoint in regards to Christianity). At that point, the oncoming driver is swerving.

  3. You fail to mention that Aurelius was an ineffective Emperor. Most of his time was spent generaling the army and not enough administrating (tho that *may* have been a Good Thing). And his successor, his vile offspring, the despicable Commodius. The ethereal Do-Gooder followed by the Thug.

  4. @ Jack
    True, the Ring of Power is dangerous in the hands of many men, but it is most dangerous in the hands of those not tempered by moral and ethical considerations, by those who acknowledge no higher power and plan than their own. Conservatives (and by that I don’t mean the modern sense but the traditional sense of the term) recognize that temporal power is not the end, and as Newman put it “we are accountable to the things we believe.” I would say that instead of using legislative or executive (or judicial, for that matter) fiat to enforce God’s law (conservatives are not dominionists), we would encourage people to live moral, dignified lives and lead by example. Conservatives from Burke to Newman to Kirk were influential not because they had vast sums of cash or were able to amass populist power but because they lived out their beliefs both privately and publicly. Conservatives spurn overarching governmental power of any stripe, and while I believe that we would encourage citizens to live according to their creeds and faiths and exercise virtue in all things, I find it inconceivable that a true conservative would use the State’s coercive power to enforce a dominionist worldview.

    The thing that Obama doesn’t realize is that what he is wanting to do has been tried over and over again with disastrous results, particularly in the last century. He knows history but ignores the drawbacks and focuses on the “potential good” it may do. He disregards cold hard reality. Kirk once said that politics is the art of the possible. What Obama wants is to create a worldly social democratic utopia, which is, as history shows, impossible.

    • B. Will: Your points are all well taken so far as they go. Let me say, though, that I suspect Barack Obama is well aware that politics is the art of the possible–if he wasn’t aware of that before he took office, he surely must be now. I also think it’s unfair to claim that liberals/progressives like Obama (or me) who believe it’s possible to use government to make society better are thereby trying to “create a worldly social democratic utopia”. I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that President Obama is under the illusion that such a thing is possible; indeed, I’m fairly certain that he has more than once employed the phrase “we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. Finally, in lumping Obama with those “who acknowledge no higher power and plan than their own,” you’re dismissing his professed Christian faith–for all I know, you may be correct to do so, but I seriously doubt it, and it strikes me as an ungenerous thing to do.

  5. As a centrist, this portrait comes closer to what I see in Obama — although as others have said, it really overstates his desire to exercise authority by fiat. I suspect that that argument ( the desire to see in the opposition a need to impose their will — a hallmark of both liberal and conservative arguments) is a product of our common frustration over a political environment that has become fervently and even maliciously oppositional. For me the central point of this essay, which speaks volumes in this age, is the desire to remove the overstated demonization from the portrait of Obama. This form of demonization, practiced all too readily by both sides, has all but ended the opportunity for cross talk in the political arena. I believe that only by setting aside this dehumanizing tendency can we hope to renew the necessary dialog. With that in mind, Jack Shifflett, I think the point of this thought exercise is highly significant — more so than had our author chosen to side with Obama on those all too parochial issues that seem to have become the constant stumbling blocks of modern political discourse.

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