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.