Life is more like wrestling than dancing; it must be ready to keep its feet against all onsets however unexpected. Meditations, Book VII
Marcus Aurelius used philosophy as a form of self- therapy and guide in everyday life. This was similar to forms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in use today. From an early age, like the ancient Spartans, he sought to train his will by taking on voluntary physical and mental austerity, believing in the importance of developing his character through the use of self-discipline and rational thought. The idea was to elevate reason over our reflexive instincts and to reign in our more destructive urges. Not any and every pleasure was to be indulged- rather the rational person would consider the outcome of giving in to one’s desires and reign in and distract those wants that were considered harmful. Inspired by Plato’s example of the philosopher-king in the Republic, Marcus sought to embody the traits of a just and wise person.
From a young age, Marcus had chosen to sleep on a narrow hard cot and to wear the coarse woolen garments of the wandering philosophers. When as a teen he had been adopted as the Emperor Hadrian’s grandson and was moved to the palace, he had regretted being surrounded by all the plush luxuries. When emperor, and faced with a budget deficit, rather than raise taxes on the people, he had chosen to auction off some of the royal treasures. At every stage, Marcus Aurelius had been cautious not to grow dependent on the comforts of lavish living. In his diaries he comments on the process of confronting one’s self:
A man so minded and committed finally to the pursuit of virtue, is indeed a priest and minister of gods, true to that inward and implanted power, which keeps a man unsoiled by pleasure, invulnerable by pain, free from all touch of arrogance, innocent of all baseness, a combatant in the greatest of all combats, which is the mastery of passion… Meditations, Book III
Of every action ask yourself, what does it mean for me? Shall I repent of it?Meditations, Book XIII
Undoubtedly this was not easy for Marcus Aurelius, who had at his disposal more diversions and opportunities for pleasure than the rest of us, and also more opportunities to misuse his power. His insistence to do what was for the highest good brings to my mind the iconic Delacroix mural in the Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris, “Jacob Wrestling the Angel”. This mural, which had caught my attention for years and to which I am irresistibly drawn, depicts our most elemental battle with ourselves.
Our inner conflict is allegorically depicted as Jacob wrestling an angel. The story which derives from the book of Genesis, has an angel blocking Jacob’s path as he leaves his home. They wrestle until daybreak, when having proved his perseverance, the angel blesses Jacob and let’s him continue on his way. The picture however depicts Jacob while striving- which is the crux of the message. Some have gone so far as to see the painting as the confrontation of man and God- or perhaps the dichotomy between the earthly and spiritual aspects of ourselves.
This is a rather refreshing reminder for us today, living in a milieu where feeling immediately pleasured is the norm. Question is what is the price we pay for lack of self-discipline and self-restraint? When do we say no to our desires? Should we say no?
*The featured photo was taken by me a few years ago in the Chapel of Angels of Saint- Sulpice Church, Paris.