Story type: Essay
We are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to Nature, and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turn away.
Annius Verus was one of the great men of Rome. He had been a soldier, governor of provinces, judge, senator and consul. Sixty years had passed over his head and whitened his hair, but the lines of care that were on his fine face ten years before had now given way to a cherubic double chin, and his complexion was ruddy as a baby’s. The entire atmosphere of the man was one of gentleness, repose and kindly good-will. Annius Verus was grateful to the gods, for the years had brought him much good fortune, and better still, knowledge. “Being old I shall know … the last of life for which the first was made!”
Religion isn’t a thing outside of a man, taught by priests out of a book. Religion is in the heart of man, and its chief quality is resignation and a grateful spirit. Annius Verus was religious in the best sense, and his life was peaceful and happy.
And surely Annius Verus should have been content–he was a Roman Consul, rich, powerful, honored by the wisest and best men in Rome, who considered it a privilege to come and dine at his table. His villa was on Mount Coelius, a suburb of Rome. The house was surrounded by a big stone wall enclosing a tract of about ten acres, where grew citron, orange and fig trees, and giant cedars of Lebanon lifted their branches to the clouds.
At least it seemed to little Marcus, grandson of the Consul, as if they reached the clouds. There was a long ladder running up one of these big cedar trees to a platform or “crow’s-nest” nearly a hundred feet from the ground. No boy was allowed to climb up there until he was twelve years old, and when Marcus was ten, time got stuck, he thought, and refused to budge. But this was only little Marcus’ idea, for he finally got to be twelve years old, and then he climbed the long ladder to the lookout in the tree and looked down on the Eternal City that lay below in the valley and stretched away over the seven hills. Often the boy would take a book and climb up there to read; and when the good grandfather missed him, he knew where to look, and standing under the tree the old man would call: “Come down, Marcus, come down and kiss your old grandfather–it is lonesome down here! Come down and read to your grandfather who loves his little Marcus!”
Such an appeal as this was irresistible, and the boy, slight, slim and agile, would clamber over the side of the crow’s-nest and down the ladder to the outstretched arms.
The boy’s father had died when he was only three months old, and the grandfather had adopted the child as his heir, and brought Lucilla, the widowed mother, and her baby to live in his house.
Years before, the Consul’s wife had passed away, and Faustina, his daughter, became the lady of the house. Lucilla and Faustina didn’t get along very well together–no house is big enough for two families, some man has said. Lucilla was gentle, gracious, spiritual, modest and refined; Faustina was beautiful and not without intellect, but she was proud, domineering and fond of admiration. But be it said to the credit of the good old Consul, he was able to suffuse the whole place with love, and even if Faustina had a tantrum now and then, it did not last long.
There were always visitors in the household–soldiers home on furloughs, governors on vacations, lawyers who came to consult the wise and judicial Verus.
One visitor of note was a man by the name of Aurelius Antoninus. He was about forty years old as Marcus first remembered him–tall and straight, with a full, dark beard, and short, curly hair touched with gray. He was a quiet, self-contained man, and at first little Marcus was a bit afraid of him. Aurelius Antoninus had been a soldier, but he showed such a studious mind, and was so intent on doing the right thing that he was made an under-secretary, then private secretary to the Emperor, and finally he had been sent away to govern a rebellious province, and put down mutiny by wise diplomacy instead of by force of arms.
Aurelius Antoninus was inclined towards the Stoics, although he didn’t talk much about it. He usually ate but two meals a day, worked with the servants, and wrote this in his diary, “Men are made for each other: even the inferior for the superior, and these for the sake of one another.”
This philosophy of the Stoics rather appealed to the widow Lucilla, also, and she read Zeno with Aurelius Antoninus. Verus did not object to it–he had been a soldier and knew the advantages of doing without things and of being able to make the things you needed, and of living simply and being plain and direct in all your acts and speech. But Faustina laughed at it all–to her it was preposterous that one should wear plain clothing and no jewelry when he could buy the costliest and best; and why one should eschew wine and meat and live on brown bread and fruit and cold water, when he could just as well have spiced and costly dishes–all this was clear beyond her. Various fetes and banquets were given by Faustina, to which the young nobles were invited. She was a beautiful woman and never for a moment forgot it, and by some mistake or accident she got herself betrothed to three men at the same time. Two of these fought a duel and one was killed. The third man looked on and hoped both would be killed, for then he could have the woman. Faustina got this third man to challenge the survivor, and then by one of those strange somersaults of fate the unexpected occurred.
Faustina and Aurelius Antoninus were married.
It was a most queer mismating, for the man was plain, sincere and honorable, and she was almost everything else. Yet she had wit and she had beauty, and Aurelius had been living in the desert so long he imagined that all women were gentle and good. The Consul was very glad to unite his house with so fine and excellent a man as Aurelius; Lucilla cried for two days and more and little Marcus cried because his mother did, and neither cried because Faustina had gone away.
But grief is transient.
In a little over a year Antoninus and Faustina came back to Rome, and brought with them a little girl baby, Faustina Second. Marcus was very much interested in this baby, and made great plans about how they would play together when she got older.
Among other visitors at the house of the old Consul often came the Emperor himself. Hadrian and Verus were Spaniards and had been soldiers together, and now Hadrian often liked to get away from the cares of State, and in the evening hide himself from the office-seekers and flattering parasites, in the quiet villa on Mount Coelius–he liked it here even better than at his own wonderful gardens at Tivoli. And little Marcus wasn’t afraid of him, either. Marcus would sit on the Emperor’s knee and listen to tales about hunting wild boars and bears, or men as wild. Then they would play tag or I-spy among the bushes and trees; and once Marcus dared the Emperor to climb the long ladder to the lookout in the big cedar. Hadrian accepted the challenge and climbed to the crow’s-nest and cut his initials in the trunk of the tree.
Instead of calling the boy Marcus Verus, the Emperor gave him the name “Verissimus,” which means “the open-eyed truthful one,” and this name stuck to Marcus for life.
Between Antoninus and Marcus there grew up a very close friendship. Antoninus could scale the ladder up the tall cedar, three rungs at a time, and come down hand over hand without putting his foot on a rest.
He and Marcus built another crow’s-nest thirty feet above the first. They drew up the lumber by ropes, and Antoninus being sinewy and strong climbed up first, and with thongs and nails they fixed the boards in place, and made a rope ladder such as sailors make, that they could pull up after them so no one could reach them. When the kind old Emperor came to the villa they showed him what they had done. He said he would not try to climb up now as he had a touch of rheumatism. But a light was fixed in the upper lookout, drawn up by a cord, so they could signal to the Emperor down at the palace.
Then Antoninus taught Marcus to ride horseback and pick up a spear off the ground, with his horse at a gallop. This was great sport for the Consul and the Emperor, who looked on, but they did not try it then, but said they would later on when they were feeling just right.
And beside all this Aurelius Antoninus taught Marcus to read from Epictetus, and told him how this hunchback slave, Epictetus, who was owned by a man who had been a slave himself, was one of the sweetest, gentlest souls who had ever lived. Together they read the Stoic-slave philosopher and made notes from him. And so impressed was Marcus that, boy though he was, he adopted the simple robe of the Stoics, slept on a plank, and made his life and language plain, truthful and direct.
This was all rather amusing to those near him–to all except Antoninus and the boy’s mother. The others said, “Leave him alone and he’ll get over it.”
Faustina was still fond of admiration–the simple, studious ways of her husband were not to her liking. He was twenty years her senior, and she demanded gaiety as her right. Her delight was to tread the borderline of folly, and see how close she could come to the brink and not step off. Julius Caesar’s wife was put away on suspicion, but Faustina was worse than that! She would go down to the city to masquerades, leaving her little girl at home, and be gone for three days.
When she returned Aurelius Antoninus spoke no word of anger or reproof. Her father said to her, “Beware! your husband’s patience has a limit. If he divorces you, I shall not blame him; and even if he should kill you, Roman law will not punish him!”
But long years after, Marcus, in looking back on those days, wrote: “His patience knew no limit; he treated her as a perverse child, and he once said to me: ‘I pity and love her. I will not put her away–this were selfish. How can her follies injure me? We are what we are, and no one can harm us but ourselves. The mistakes of those near us afford us an opportunity for self-control–we will not imitate their errors, but rather strive to avoid them. In this way what might be a great humiliation has its benefits.’”
Let no one imagine, however, that the tolerance of Antoninus was the soft acquiescence of weakness. After his death Marcus wrote: “Whatsoever excellent thing he had planned to do, he carried out with a persistency that nothing could divert. If he punished men, it was by allowing them to be led by their own folly–his foresight, wisdom and calm deliberation were beyond those of any man I ever knew.”
The studious, direct and manly ways of Marcus were not cast aside when he put on the toga virilis, as Faustina had predicted. In spite of the difference in their ages, Antoninus and Marcus mutually sustained each other.
Little Faustina was much more like her father than her mother, and very early showed her preference for her father’s society. Marcus was her playmate and taught her to ride a pony astride, just as her father had taught him. The three would often ride over to the village of Lorium, twelve miles from Rome, where Antoninus had a summer villa. At Lanuvium, near at hand, the Emperor spent a part of his time, and he would occasionally join the party and listen to Marcus recite from Cicero and Caesar.
When Marcus was sixteen, Hadrian appointed him prefect of festivities in Rome, to take the place of the regular officer, a man of years, who was out of the city. So well did Marcus fill the place and make up his report, that when they again met, the old Emperor kissed his cheek, calling him, “My brave Verissimus,” and said, “If I had a son, I would want him just like you.”
Not long after this the Emperor was taken violently ill. He called his counselors about his bedside and directed that Aurelius Antoninus should be his successor, and that, further, Antoninus should adopt Marcus Verus, so that Marcus should succeed Aurelius Antoninus.
Hadrian loved Marcus for his own sake, and he loved him, too, for the sake of the grandfather, his old soldier comrade, Annius Verus; and beside that he was intent on preserving the Spanish strain.
In a short time Hadrian passed away, and Aurelius Antoninus was crowned Emperor of Rome, and Marcus Verus, aged seventeen, slim, slender and studious, took the name, Marcus Aurelius.
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The new reign did not begin under very favorable auspices. There was a prejudice against the Spanish blood, and Hadrian had alienated some of the aristocrats by measures they considered too democratic.
Aurelius Antoninus knew of these prejudices toward his predecessor and he boldly met them by carrying the ashes of Hadrian to the Senate, demanding that the dead Emperor should be enrolled among the gods. So earnest and convincing was his eulogy of the great man gone, that a vote was taken and the resolution passed without a dissenting voice. This gives us a slight clew to the genesis of the gods, and also reveals to us the character of Antoninus. He so impressed the Senate that this honorable body thought best to waive all matters of difference, and in pretty compliment they voted to bestow on the new Emperor the degree of “Pius.” Antoninus Pius was a man born to rule–in little things, lenient, but firm at the right time. Faustina still had her little social dissipations, but as she was not allowed to mix in affairs of State, her pink person was not a political factor.
Marcus Aurelius was only seventeen years old: his close studies had robbed him of a bit of the robust health a youth should have. But horseback-riding and daily outdoor games finally got him back into good condition. He was the secretary and companion of the Emperor wherever he went.
Great responsibilities confronted these two strong men. In point of intellect and aspiration they were far beyond the people they governed–so far, indeed, that they were almost isolated. There was a multitude of slaves and consequently there was a feeling everywhere that useful work was degrading. The tendency of the slave-owner is always toward profligacy and conspicuous waste. To do away with slavery was out of the question–that was a matter of time and education–the ruler can never afford to get much in advance of his people. The court was infected with parasites in the way of informers and busybodies who knew no way to thrive except through intrigue. Superstitions were taught by hypocritical priests in order to make the people pay tithes; and attached to the state religion were soothsayers, fortune-tellers, astrologers, gamblers and many pretenders who waxed fat by ministering to ignorance and depravity. These were the cheerful parasites mentioned as “money-changers” a hundred years before, that infested the entrance to every temple.
Many long consultations did the Emperor and his adopted son have concerning the best policy to pursue. They could have issued an edict and swept the wrongs out of existence, but they knew that folly sprouts from a disordered brain, and so they did not treat a symptom: the disease was ignorance, the symptom, superstition. For themselves they kept an esoteric doctrine, and for the many they did what they could.
Twenty-three years of probation lay before Marcus Aurelius–years of study, work, and patient endeavor. He shared in all the honors of the Emperor and bore his part of the burden as well. Never did he thirst for more power–the responsibilities of the situation saddened him–there was so much to be done and he could do so little. Well does Dean Farrar call him “a seeker after God.”
The office of young Marcus Aurelius at first was that of Questor, which literally means a messenger, but the word with the Romans meant more–an emissary or an ambassador. When Marcus was eighteen he read to the Senate all speeches and messages from the Emperor; and in a few years more he wrote the messages as well as delivered them. And all the time his education was being carried along by competent instructors.
One of these teachers, Fronto, has come down to us, his portrait well etched on history’s tablets, because he saved all the letters written him by Marcus Aurelius; and his grandchildren published them in order to show the excellence of true scientific teaching. That old Fronto was a dear old dear, these letters do fully attest. When Marcus went away on a little journey, even to Lorium, he wrote a letter to Fronto telling about the trip–the sheep by the wayside, the dogs that herded them, the shower they saw coming across the Campagna, and incidentally a little freshman philosophy mixed in, for Fronto had cautioned his pupil always to write out a great thought when it came, for fear he would never have another. Marcus was a sprightly letter-writer, and must have been a quick observer, and Fronto’s gentle claims that he made the man are worthy of consideration. As a literary exercise the daily theme, prompted by love, can never be improved upon. The way to learn to write is to write. And Pronto, who resorted to many little tricks in order to get his pupil to express himself, was a teacher whose name should be written high. The correspondence-school has many advantages–Fronto purposely sent his pupil away or absented himself, that the carefully formulated or written thought might take the place of the free and easy conversation. In one letter Marcus ends: “The day was perfect but for one thing–you were not here. But then if you were here, I would not now have the pleasure of writing to you, so thus is your philosophy proved: that all good is equalized, and love grows through separation!” This sounds a bit preachy, but is valuable, as it reveals the man to whom it is written: the person to whom we write dictates the message.
Fronto’s habit of giving a problem to work out was quite as good a teaching plan as anything we have to offer now. Thus: “An ambassador of Rome visiting an outlying province attended a gladiatorial contest. And one of the fighters being indisposed, the ambassador replied to a taunt by putting on a coat of mail and going into the ring to kill the lion. Question, was this action commendable? If so, why, and if not, why not?”
The proposition was one that would appeal at once to a young man, and thus did Fronto lead his pupils to think and express.
Another teacher that Marcus had was Rusticus, a blunt old farmer turned pedagog, who has added a word to our language. His pupils were called Rusticana, and later plain rustics. That Rusticus developed in Marcus a deal of plain, sturdy commonsense there is no doubt. Rusticus had a way of stripping a subject of its gloss and verbiage–going straight to the vital point of every issue. For the wisdom of Marcus’ legal opinions Rusticus deserves more than passing credit.
For the youth who was destined to be the next Emperor of Rome, there was no dearth of society if he chose to accept it. Managing mammas were on every corner, and kind kinsmen consented to arrange matters with this heiress or that. For the frivolities of society Marcus had no use–his hours were filled with useful work or application to his books. His father and Fronto we find were both constantly urging him to get out more in the sunshine and meet more people, and not bother too much about the books.
How best to curtail over-application, I am told, is a problem that seldom faces a teacher.
As for society as a matrimonial bazaar, Marcus Aurelius could not see that it had its use. He was afraid of it–afraid of himself, perhaps. He loved the little Faustina. They had been comrades together, and played “keep house” under the olive-trees at Lorium; and had ridden their ponies over the hills. Once Marcus and Faustina, on a ride across the country, bought a lamb out of the arms of a shepherd, and kept it until it grew great curling horns, and made visitors scale the wall or climb trees. Then three priests led it away to sacrifice, and Marcus and Faustina fell into each other’s arms and rained tears down each other’s backs, and refused to be comforted. What if their father was an Emperor, and Marcus would be some day! It would not bring back Beppo, with his innocent lamblike ways, and make him get down on his knees and wag his tail when they fed him out of a pail! Beppo always got on his knees to eat, and showed his love and humility before he grew his horns and reached the age of indiscretion; then he became awfully wicked, and it took three stout priests to lead him away and sacrifice him to the gods for his own good!
But gradually the grass grew on Beppo’s make-believe grave in the garden, and Fronto’s problems filled the vacuum in their hearts. Fronto gave his lessons to Marcus, and Marcus gave them to Faustina–thus do we keep things by giving them away.
But problems greater than pet sheep grown ribald and reckless were to confront Marcus and Faustina. They had both been betrothed to others, years before, and this they now resented. They talked of this much, and then suddenly ceased to talk of it, and each evaded mentioning it, and pretended they never thought of it. Then they explosively began again–began as suddenly to talk of it, and always when they met they mentioned it. Folks called them brother and sister–they were not brother and sister, only cousins.
Finally the matter was brought to Antoninus, and he pretended that he had never thought about it; but in fact he had thought of little else for a long time. And Antoninus said that if they loved each other very much, and he was sure they did, why, it was the will of the gods that they should marry, and he never interfered with the will of the gods; so he kissed them both and cried a few foolish tears, a thing an Emperor should never do.
So they were married at the country seat at Lorium, out under the orange-trees as was often the custom, for orange-trees are green the year ’round, and bear fruit and flowers at the same time, and the flowers are very sweet, and the fruit is both beautiful and useful–and these things symbol constancy and fruitfulness and good luck, and that is why we yet have orange-blossoms at weddings and play the “Lohengrin March,” which is orange-trees expressed in sweet sounds.
Marcus was only twenty, and Faustina could not have been over sixteen–we do not know her exact age. There are stories to the effect that the wife of Marcus Aurelius severely tried her husband’s temper at times, but these tales seem to have arisen through a confusion of the two Faustinas. The elder Faustina was the one who set the merry pace in frivolity, and once said that any woman with a husband twenty years her senior must be allowed a lover or two–goodness gracious!
As far as we know, the younger Faustina was a most loyal and loving wife, the mother of a full dozen children. Coins issued by Marcus Aurelius stamped with the features of his wife, and the inscription Concordia, Faustina and Venus Felix, attest the felicity, or “felixity,” of the marriage.
Their oldest boy, Commodus, was very much like his grandmother, Faustina, and a man who knows all about the Law of Heredity tells me that children are much more apt to resemble their grandparents than their father and mother.
I believe I once said that no house is big enough for two families, but this truth is like the Greek verb–it has many exceptions. In the same house with Emperor Antoninus Pius dwelt Lucilla, mother of Marcus, and Marcus and his wife. And they were all very happy–but life was rather more peaceful after the death of Faustina, the elder, which occurred a few years after her husband became Emperor.
She could not endure prosperity.
But her husband mourned her death and made a public speech in eulogy of her, determined that only the best should be remembered of one who had been the wife of an Emperor and the mother of his children. As far as we know, Antoninus never spoke a word concerning his wife except in praise, not even when she left his house to be gone for months.
It was Ouida, she of the aqua-fortis ink, who said, “A woman married to a man as good as Antoninus must have been very miserable, for while men who are thoroughly bad are not lovable, yet a man who is not occasionally bad is unendurable.” And so Ouida’s heart went out in sympathy and condolence to the two Faustinas, who wedded the only two men mentioned in Roman history who were infinitely wise and good.
In one of his essays, Richard Steele writes this, “No woman ever loved a man through life with a mighty love if the man did not occasionally abuse her.” I give the remark for what it is worth. However, Montesquieu somewhere says that the chief objection to heaven is its monotony; so possibly there may be something in the Ouida-Steele philosophy–but of this I really can’t say, knowing nothing about the subject, myself.
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Happy is the man who has no history. The reign of Antoninus Pius was peaceful and prosperous. No great wars nor revulsions occurred, and the times made for education and excellence. Antoninus worked to conserve the good, and that he succeeded, Gibbon says, there is no doubt. He left the country in better condition than he found it, and he could have truthfully repeated the words of Pericles, “I have made no person wear crape.”
But there came a day when Antoninus was stricken by the hand of death. The captain of the guard came to him and asked for the password for the night. “Equanimity,” replied the Emperor, and turning on his side, sank into sleep, to awake no more. His last word symbols the guiding impulse of his life. Well does Renan say: “Simple, loving, full of sweet gaiety, Antoninus was a philosopher without saying so, almost without knowing it. Marcus was a philosopher, but often consciously, and he became a philosopher by study and reflection, aided and encouraged by the older man. You can not consider the one man and leave the other out, and the early contention that Antoninus was, in fact, the father of Marcus has at least a poetic and spiritual basis in truth.”
There was much in Renan’s suggestions. The greatest man is he who works his philosophy up into life–this is better than to talk about it. We only discuss that to which we have not attained, and the virtues we talk most of are those beyond us. The ideal outstrips the actual. But it is no discredit that a man pictures more than he realizes–such a one is preparing the way for others. Marcus Antoninus has been a guiding star–an inspiration–to untold millions.
Marcus Aurelius was forty years old when he became Emperor of Rome. At the age of forty a man is safe, if ever: character is formed, and what he will do or become, can be safely presaged.
More than once Rome has repudiated the man in the direct line of accession to the throne, and before Marcus Aurelius took the reins of government he asked the Senate to ratify the people’s choice, and thus make it the choice of the gods, and this was done.
As Emperor, we find Marcus endeavored to carry out the policy of his predecessor. He did not favor expansion, but hoped by peace and propitiation to cement the empire and thus work for education, harmony and prosperity.
It is interesting to see how Marcus Aurelius in the year One Hundred Sixty-four was cudgeling his brains concerning problems about which we yet argue and grow red in the face. The Emperor was also Chief Justice, and questions were being constantly brought to him to decide. From him there was no appeal, and his decisions made the law upon which all lesser judges based their rulings. And curiously enough we are dealing most extensively in judge-made law even today.
One vexed question that confronted Marcus was the lessening number of marriages, with a consequent increase in illegitimate births and a gradual dwindling of the free population. He seems to have disliked this word illegitimate, for he says, “All children are beautiful blessings–sent by the gods.” But people who were legally married objected to this view, and said to recognize children born out of wedlock as entitled to all the privileges of citizenship is virtually to do away with legal marriage. As a compromise, Marcus decided to recognize all people as married who said they were married. This is exactly our common-law marriage as it exists in various States today.
However, a man could put away his wife at will, and by recording the fact with the nearest pretor, the act was legalized. It will thus be seen that if a man could marry at will and put away his wife at will, there was really no marriage beyond that of nature. To meet the issue, and prevent fickle and unjust men from taking advantage of women, Marcus decided that the pretor could refuse to record the desired divorce, if he saw fit, and demand reasons. We then for the first time get a divorce trial, and on appeal to Marcus, he decided that if the man were in the wrong, he must still support the injured wife.
Then, for the first time, we find women asking for a divorce. Now, nearly three-fourths of all divorces are granted to women; but at first, that a woman should want marital freedom caused a howl of merriment. Marcus was the first Roman Emperor to allow women the right of petition, and the privilege, too, of practising law, for Capitolanus cites various instances of women coming to ask for justice, and women friends coming with them to help plead their case, and the Emperor of Rome, leaning his tired head on his arm, listening for hours with great patience. We also hear of petitions for damages being presented for failure to keep a promise to marry–the action being brought against the girl’s father. This would be thought a trifle strange, but an action against a woman for breach of promise is quite in order yet.
Recently the Honorable Henry Ballard of Vermont won heavy damages against a coy and dallying heiress who had played pitch and toss with a good man’s heart. The case was carried to the United States Supreme Court and judgment sustained.
The question of marriage and divorce now in the United States is almost precisely where it was in Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius. No two States have the same marriage-laws, and marriages which are illegal in one State may be made legal in another. Yet with us, any court of jurisdiction may declare any marriage illegal, or set any divorce aside. What makes marriage and what constitutes divorce are matters of opinion in the mind of the judge. We have gone a bit further than Marcus, though, in that we allow couples to marry if they wish, yet divorce is denied if both parties desire it. The fact that they want it is construed as proof that they should not have it. We meet the issue, however, by connivance of the lawyers, who are officers of the court, and a legal fiction is inaugurated by allowing a little bird to tell the judge what decision will be satisfactory to both sides. And in States or countries where no divorce is allowed, marriage can be annulled if you know how–see Ruskin versus Ruskin, Coleridge, J.
Our zealous New Thought friends, who clamor to have marriage made difficult and divorce easy, forget that the whole question has been threshed over for three thousand years, and all schemes tried. The Romans issued marriage-licenses, but before doing so a pretor passed on the fitness of the candidates for each other. This was so embarrassing to many coy couples that they just waived formal proceedings and set up housekeeping. To declare these people lawbreakers, Marcus Aurelius said, would put half of Rome in limbo, just as, if we should technically enforce all laws, it would send most members of the Legislature to the penitentiary. So the Emperor declared de-facto marriage de jure, and for a short time succeeded in striking out the word illegitimate as applied to a person, on the ground that, in justice, no act of a parent could be charged up against and punished in the offspring.
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Men who make laws have forever to watch most closely and dance attendance on Nature. Laws which fly in the face of Nature are gently waived or conveniently forgotten. Should Chief Justice Fuller issue an injunction restraining all men from coming within a quarter of a mile of a woman, on penalty of death, we would all place ourselves in contempt in an hour; and should the army try to enforce the order, we would smother Justice Fuller in his wool-sack and hang his effigy on a sour-apple tree. Law isn’t worth the paper it is written on unless it embodies the will and natural tendencies of the governed. Where poaching is popular, no law can stop it. Marriage is easy, and divorce difficult, because this is Nature’s plan. The natural law of attraction brings men and women together, and it is difficult to separate them. Natural things are easy, and artificial ones difficult. Most couples who desire freedom only think they do: what they really want is a vacation; but they would not separate for good if they could. It is hard to part–people who have lived together grow to need each other. They want some one to quarrel with.
Caesar Augustus, in his close study of character, introduced a limited divorce. That is, in case of a family quarrel, he ordered the couple to live apart for six months as a penalty. Quintilian says that usually before the expired time the man and woman were surreptitiously living together again, at which the court quietly winked, and finally this form of penalty had to be abandoned because it made the courts ridiculous.
Men and women do not get married because marriage is legal, nor do they continue living together because divorce is difficult. They marry because they desire to, and they do not separate because they do not want to. The task that confronts the legislator is to find out what the people want to do, and then legalize it.
In Rome, the custom of the parties divorcing themselves was prevalent, and the courts were called upon to ratify the act, just to give the matter respectability. Below a certain stratum in society, the formality of legal marriage and divorce was waived entirely, just as it is largely, now, among our colored population in the South. During the French Revolution, the same custom largely obtained in France. And about the year One Hundred Fifty in Rome there was danger that the people would overlook the majesty of the law entirely in their domestic affairs. This condition is what prompted Marcus Aurelius to recognize as legal the common-law marriage and say if a couple called themselves husband and wife, they were. And for a time, if they said they were divorced, they were. But as a mortgage owned by a man on his own property cancels the debt, and legally there is no mortgage, so if the people could get married at will and divorce themselves at their convenience, there really was no legal marriage. Thus the matter was argued. So Marcus adopted the plan of making marriage easy and divorce difficult, and this has been the policy in all civilized countries ever since.
It is very evident, however, that Marcus Aurelius looked forward to a time when men and women would be wise enough, and just enough, to arrange their own affairs, without calling on the police to ratify either their friendships or their misunderstandings. He says: “Love is beautiful, and that a man and a woman loving each other should live together is the will of God, but if there comes a time when they can not live in peace, let them part. To have no relationship is not a disgrace; to have wrong relations is, for disgrace means lack of grace, discord, and love is harmony.”
Marcus Aurelius tried the plan of probationary marriages; and to offset this he also introduced the Augustinian plan of probationary divorces–that is, the interlocutory decree. This scheme has recently been adopted in several States in America with the avowed intent of preventing fraud in divorce procedure, but actually the logic of the situation is the same now as in the time of Marcus Aurelius–it postpones the final decree so as to prevent the couple from becoming the victims of their own rashness, and to give them an opportunity to become reconciled if possible.
So anxious was Marcus Aurelius to decide justly with his people that he found himself swamped with cases of every sort and description. He tried to pass upon each case by its merits, regardless of law and precedent. Then other judges construed his decisions as law, and the lesser courts cited the upper ones, until Gibbon says, “There grew up such a mass of judge-made laws that a skilful lawyer could prove anything, and legal practise swung on the ability to cite similar cases and call attention to desired decisions.”
In America we are now back exactly to the same condition. A lawyer in New York State requires over fourteen thousand law-books if he would cover all the ground; and his business is to make it easy for the judge to dispense justice and not dispense with law. That is to say, before a judge can decide a case, he must be able to back up his opinion by precedent. Judges are not elected to deal out justice between man and man; they are elected to decide on points of law. Law is often a great disadvantage to a judge–it may hamper justice–and in America there must surely soon come a day when we will make a bonfire of every law-book in the land, and electing our judges for life, we will make the judiciary free. We will then require our lawyers and judges to read, and pass examinations on Browning’s “Ring and the Book,” and none other. And if we would follow the Aurelian suggestion of remitting all direct taxes to every citizen who had not been plaintiff in a lawsuit for ten years, we would gradually get something approaching pure justice. The people must be educated to decide quietly and calmly their own disputes, and this can be done only by placing an obvious penalty on litigation. Progress in the future will consist in having less law, and fulfilment will be reached when we have no law at all–each man governing himself, and being willing that his neighbor shall do the same. Trouble arises largely from each man regarding himself as his brother’s keeper, and ceasing to be his friend. Marcus Aurelius, the wise judge, saw that most litigation is foolish and absurd–both parties are at fault, and both right. And to bring about the good time when men shall live in peace, he began earnestly to govern himself. His ideal was a state where men would need no governing. Hence his “Meditations,” a book which Dean Farrar says is not inferior to the New Testament in its lofty aim and purity of conception.
Every great book is an evolution: Marcus had been getting ready to write this immortal volume for nearly half a century. And now in his fifty-seventh year he found himself in the desert of Asia at the head of the army, endeavoring to put down an insurrection of various barbaric tribes. Later, the seat of war was shifted to the north. The enemy struck and retreated, and danced around him as the Boers fought the English in South Africa.
But Marcus Aurelius had time to think, and so with no books near and all memoranda far away, he began to write out his best thoughts. At first he expressed just for his own satisfaction, but later, as the work progressed, we see that its value grew upon him, and it was his intention to put it in systematic form for posterity. And while working at this task, the exposures of field and camp, and the business of war, in which he had no heart, worked upon him so adversely that he sickened and died, aged fifty-nine.
His body was carried back to Rome and placed by the side of that of his beloved adopted father, Antoninus Pius. And so he sleeps, but the precious legacy of the “Meditations,” written during those last two years of travel, turmoil and strife, is ours.
A few quotations seem in order:
Remember, on every occasion which leads thee to vexation, to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.
Things do not touch the soul, for they are eternal, and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within…. The Universe is transformation; life is opinion.
To the jaundiced, honey tastes bitter; and to those bitten by mad dogs, water causes fear; and to little children, the ball is a fine thing. Why then am I angry? Dost thou think that a false opinion has less power than the bile in the jaundiced, or the poison in him who is bitten by a mad dog?
How easy it is to repel and to wipe away every impression which is troublesome and unsuitable, and immediately to be in all tranquillity!
All things come from the universal Ruling Power, either directly or by way of consequence. And accordingly the lion’s gaping jaws, and that which is poisonous, and every hurtful thing, as a thorn, as mud, are after-products of the grand and beautiful. Do not therefore imagine that they are of another kind from that which thou dost venerate, but form a just opinion of the source of all.
Pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods, with his whole soul, all that he has, making himself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.
Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains.
I am thankful to the gods that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being, for this reason, either meaner in thought or more remiss in action, with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler.
What more dost thou want when thou hast done a man a service? Art thou not content that thou hast done something conformable to thy nature, and dost thou seek to be paid for it? Just as if the eye demanded a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking. As a horse when he has run, a dog when he has traced the game, a bee when it has made the honey, so a man, when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season.
Accustom thyself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.
Some things are hurrying into existence, and others are hurrying out of it; and of that which is coming into existence, part is already extinguished. Motions and changes are continually renewing the world, just as the uninterrupted course of time is always renewing the infinite duration of ages.
Understand that every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.
Wickedness does no harm at all to the universe–it is only harmful to him who has it in his power to be released from it.
Nothing is more wretched than a man who traverses everything in a round, and pries into the things beneath the earth, as the poet says, and seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the deity within him, and to reverence it sincerely.
The prayers of Marcus Aurelius to the gods are for one thing only–that their will be done. All else is vain, all else is rebellion against the universe itself. Our form of worship should be like this: Everything harmonizes with me which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early nor too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return.
In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present–I am rising to the work of a human being. Why, then, am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist, and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bedclothes and keep myself warm? But this is more pleasant. Dost thou exist, then, to take thy pleasure, and not for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees, working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?
Judge every word and deed which are according to Nature to be fit for thee, and be not diverted by the blame which follows…. But if a thing is good to be done or said, do not consider it unworthy of thee.
Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly…. Death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.
To say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapor; and life is a warfare, and a stranger’s sojourn, and after fame is oblivion. What, then, is that which is able to enrich a man? One thing, and only one–philosophy. But this consists in keeping the guardian spirit within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely, and with hypocrisy … accepting all that happens and all that is allotted … and finally waiting for death with a cheerful mind.
If thou findest in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude, and, in a word, than thine own soul’s satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason, and in the condition that is assigned to thee without thy own choice; if, I say, thou seest anything better than this, turn to it with all thy soul, and enjoy that which thou hast found to be the best. But … if thou findest everything else smaller and of less value than this, give place to nothing else…. Simply and freely choose the better, and hold to it.
Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity–which is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.
Unhappy am I, because this has happened to me? Not so, but happy am I though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain; neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.
Be cheerful, and seek no external help, nor the tranquillity which others give. A man must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.
Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.
It is not fit that I should give myself pain, for I have never intentionally given pain even to another.