The lengthy Roman empire had many emperors. Not all of them were much good, some even evil…Nero, Caligula, Domitian, Diocletian, Commodus: none of them are remembered with much admiration, each of them demanding that they be worshiped as a god, and men in any position of governmental authority desiring god-like worship leads to travail and suffering. Ordinary men desiring god-like worship are just thought to be insane. Insanity among the ordinary is only trouble for those in their immediate sphere of influence, like a family member that bears watching before he gets out of hand. Insane emperors are an exponential sort of trouble since entire nations are made to suffer.
Marcus Aurelius was not among the bad emperors. He is considered to be one of the last five of the good emperors. I admire his stoic philosophy, of which he was one of the chief thinkers and spokespersons. His Meditations is still widely read and studied today. He gave us a lot to think about, things still worthy of reflection since human nature has not changed much between the time he served Rome as emperor from 161AD to 180AD. His last day as emperor, at the time of his death, was 1,834 years ago. That is a long time by human reckoning, but hardly enough time for human nature to have changed very much.
There are those who believe that we humans are moving towards an overall enlightenment through the passage of time, where education, reflection, socialization, and tolerance will make us all more like the tolerant Marcus Aurelius. I suppose they don’t remember that he was a soldier and a warrior who did his duty to the best of his ability, which meant that those on the opposing side found him murderously intolerant. In addition to the quote above, Aurelius said, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Aurelius had his own perspective which was shaped and informed by his own opinions and the opinions of others. So did his adversaries. It is doubtful that they were shared, and likely that each perspective was derived as honestly as the opinions that informed them. Men don’t choose to be influenced by treacherous chicanery though treachery and chicanery have certainly had more than a little influence in human affairs. I suppose it is man’s god-like wish that causes us the most trouble.
The desire to be god-like was not a problem for Aurelius; he didn’t believe in the Roman deities, nor in any god; at least that’s what his writing informs. Any thoughts of this he may have secretly harbored in his heart are very stoically withheld from our consideration, which seems appropriate for this champion of stoicism. We know what he wrote. We don’t know what was in his heart, though we think we have some measure of it from his writings. I’d be foolish to think that you have not surmised some of what is in my heart from the things I’ve written, yet I don’t reveal everything. Only a fool reveals everything, and Aurelius was no fool. I don’t think I’m a fool either, though you may have your own opinion about that. I certainly can be foolish from time to time, but doing a foolish thing and being a fool are not quite the same thing: far from it.
So, first, in order not to be foolishly incapable of performing the task at hand, let’s organize the obvious. Obviously, the obvious things are easily seen, though not so easily organized. It’s the non-obvious things that are the most danger for us, the unseen things, the unscripted circumstances, the dangers we fail to visualize. One of the most obvious things any warrior has to face is that there is an opponent who is actively engaged to the best of his ability to bring about your failure. One’s opponent may be very good at what he does, exploiting the non-obvious to his great advantage. It is the foolish general who fights with the river in his rear and the foolish general who attacks the river-crossing army as soon as they start to cross.
It seems obvious to attack as soon as the first waves of troops enter the river, but Sun-Tzu, the great Chinese warrior and philosopher, advises to let half of the entire army cross the river safely, then attack while the other half of the army behind them is in mid-river. If the attack is fierce enough, the entire army will soon be in the river. Attack too soon, and the army will simply not cross at all. Aurelius must have read Sun-Tzu, who predated him by about 600 years or so. I can’t be sure that Sun-Tzu’s treatise, The Art of War, was available for him to read, but if anyone had the means to possess it, it would have been a wise Roman emperor, who perhaps having heard of its existence would have sought it out. Both Aurelius and Sun-Tzu are still studied, still having something relevant to speak to those who would listen from across ancient times.
Why mention Sun Tzu in an op-ed about Marcus Aurelius? Sun Tzu was a master organizer of the non-obvious. Aurelius, cognizant of the dangers of the non-obvious, must have been a master of its organization, too. It is likely that both of them were either fortunate to have survived a non-obvious mistake, or wise enough to have witnessed the non-obvious mistake of another and make careful mental notes. We all learn from our mistakes if we survive them. The really fortunate and wise learn from the observed mistakes of others, avoiding them entirely.
How many times has the non-obvious ensnared us all, thwarting our plans, bringing our efforts and expenditures to naught? It is a common story. The hard part is identifying the non-obvious. How do we do that? Can you tell me?
We can’t plan for every eventuality we can consider, much less plan for those that are so obscure as to escape our attention. We can see that the floor needs replacing. What we can’t see is that the joists under the floor also need replacing, which only become obvious once the floor is removed and the joists exposed. Additionally, we can’t see that the sills supporting the joists are rotten, as are the crumbling piers upon which the sills are resting. The very foundation of that which we would repair is ruined. Had we seen the non-obvious, perhaps we would have foregone any attempt at repair and more prudently just built anew. One has to dig deep to get to the non-obvious. As every layer is uncovered, another non-obvious layer is exposed.
Sooner or later, one has to do some earnest digging for the non-obvious, or get on with the doing of whatever is to be done hoping the non-obvious will stay that way. It is in the middle of any task that the manifestation of the non-obvious becomes the task’s potential fatality.
What non-obvious things are in our way, today?
Like Marcus Aurelius, we are still meditating on that one. May we be as successful at it as he seemed to be.
He also left us with this: Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.
If we can do that, then many formerly non-obvious things are translated to the obvious.
If I could make a list of all the things I don’t know, would it be possible to include the things that I don’t know that I don’t know?
Hmmmmm! I’ll have to think on that one for a while. In the meantime, I’ll be sure and include the non-obvious in all of my plans…at least as best I can.
And please, before any of my fellow Christians think I am glorifying atheism by contemplating what an atheistic, stoic philosopher had to say, give a minute’s pause to consider the non-obvious before sending me an e-mail.
©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp