Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?

Sometimes my younger friends ask me what life was like growing up in the dark days of the 80s.  The answer is, of course, that it was totally awesome.  We played shoulder-pad tennis, we dined on denim and hairspray, we drove around in flying cars, we listened to non-stop Whitney on our eight-track ghetto-blasters, we raced personal stereos and every other year we would party until our hair caught fire.  Oh, and from 1985 to 1987 our school uniform included a compulsory bra-hat.

Stylish and practical, yet somehow it never caught on...
What we didn't know at the time, because our school dropped history from the curriculum in favour of Rubix-cube Polo lessons, was that in all our heady hedonistic eighties hubris we were doing nothing that the Romans hadn't already done, six thousand or so years earlier.  Yup, the bra-hat was invented by a Roman guy called Pliny, as a cure for headaches.  As he writes in his Natural History, "I find that headaches are relieved by tying a woman's brassiere on the head".

I discovered this because I was doing some digging into the Romans of Roman times.  Not actual digging, with a spade or anything.  I'll leave that to Baldrick and his highly trained team of miners.  I've been doing virtual digging, on the internets.

You ask me why.  I will tell you why.  It's because of this dude:

If I was not made of stone I'd kick yo ass for stealing my bra-hat.
This guy is Marcus Aurelius, and he was big in Rome back when the Romans were doing as Romans do when in Rome.  In fact, he was the emperor from 161 - 180 AD.  And apparently he came up with this sage advice:

Live a good life.  If there are gods, and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.  If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.  If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

The bra-hat, tragically, like the thong-scrunchy, the suspender-necklace and the petticoat, er, petticoat, failed to make it through the Great Fashion Cull at the end of the 80s, when all of us who had survived the decade signed a solemn pledge to Start Being A Bit More Sensible About Our Wardrobe Choices.  But Marco's stoic bit of fence-sitting has lasted. In fact, now that we have Facebook - something the Romans inexplicably failed to create first - this bon mot is gaining credence among a generation who no longer have the comfort of cranial-lingerie to sooth their existential-crisis-induced headaches.

It appeals to us for a few reasons:

1) It requires no burden of investigation on our part.  All bases are covered.  Good gods, bad gods, no gods, it doesn't matter.
2) It requires no great inconvenience on our part, beyond living a "good" life, which basically means helping the odd old lady across the road and trying not to go on any random killing sprees.

In essence, it translates as "Do What You Think Is Right", which in turn means "Carry On As You Are".

You may have guessed by now that I didn't start this post just so I could talk about the Roman habit of applying corsetry to your noggin.  That only accounts for thirty-seven percent of my motive, give or take. Nope, the Aurelius Aphorism is such a widely adopted viewpoint that I thought it was worth taking time out from our busy schedule of Whitney-bashing just to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Rather than hit you all over the head with what the Bible says (and the Bible is heavy, so you'd probably need to borrow one of Madonna's special pointy bras to get adequate cushioning), I'm just going to pose a few questions. So strap on your favourite Gossard and let's start challenging some world views.

Live a good life.

1: Whose definition of "good" are we going to adopt?
At the time Marcus Aurelius wrote these words, it was considered perfectly acceptable for Roman men to keep young boys as slaves, and to use them for sex. Would we be happy with that definition of "good"? If not, what makes our definition of "good" the, um, "right" one? Have we stopped to wonder whether our personal definition of "good" is anything other than our personal definition of "comfortable"?

2: What if you haven't lived a good life? What if you've stolen or cheated or killed? What if you are a prisoner to drug addiction, or prostitution, or infidelity? Everyone makes poor choices from time to time - what if yours resulted in destroying a marriage, or destroying a life? What if you are going to be in prison for the next twenty years? Is there a way to turn a bad life into a good life? Do the bad things just get swept under the carpet when you decide to start being good? Would we be happy with a justice system that told a convicted rapist he was free to go if he promised to be good from now on?

If there are gods, and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.

3: Marcus is rather presuming that a "just" god is one who agrees with our definition of "good". We get to decide what is good and bad, and if a god disagrees with us then they must be wrong. Is that not just a tiny bit arrogant? Is it possible that a god's understanding of right and wrong might be better than ours?

4: A god who cares how devout we are is, by Marco's argument, unjust. Does that necessarily follow? What if a god's definition of "doing good" includes being in a relationship with that god? Cast your mind back (or forward) to the confusing days of teenager-hood. No doubt your parents burdened you with utterly unreasonable rules - "No TV before homework" or "No juggling chainsaws on the trampoline" or "No supergluing your sister's bra to your head". Did they make these rules just for the sake of defining right and wrong, or was there a purpose behind them? Were your parents only interested in seeing whether or not you obeyed, or were they somehow hoping that family relationships, say, might be improved if there were fewer trips to casualty and the headmaster's office? In other words, is there a relational purpose behind our views of right and wrong? Cast in that light, Marcus is basically saying "If a god wants to relate to you, then you shouldn't want to relate to him." - which is just a bit childish, really.

(Interestingly, Marcus hugely undermined his argument here by convincing the senate to declare that his wife was a goddess. There were temples dedicated to her, and, by decree, when people got married they had to pay their vows before her altar. The fact that his wife was, by all accounts, not the least bit faithful to poor old Marcus was beside the point.  I guess his first draft, "If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them, unless it's my wife, in which case worship her or I'll turn you into lion snacks" was just a bit too wordy to be considered properly stoic and wise.)

If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

5: What if you have no loved ones? What if no one saw this noble life that you lived? It's all very well for Marco Ruler-Of-The-Civilised-World Aurelius to spout this kind of thing - when he finally carked it he was mourned by a whole empire. He probably had a funereal procession of thousands of weeping subjects, all decked out in their finest black ceremonial bra-hats, singing great songs about him. Oh, and yes, as was the custom at the time, he was also deified upon death. According to my sources (which weren't just wikipedia) he was still being worshipped as a household god over a century later. Most of us are not going to get that kind of treatment. If you are friendless and alone in this life, I'm afraid Marcus offers you little comfort.

So there you go. Five concerns with Marco's philosophy:

  1. How can we know what "good" actually means?
  2. What hope is there for people who have failed to be "good"?
  3. Have we automatically assumed that our sense of justice is better than God's?
  4. Is it really unjust of God to care whether or not we utterly ignore him?
  5. If there are no gods, or no just gods, what hope is there for people who face dying alone and anonymous?

The Bible has heaps and heaps and heaps and heaps to say about all these issues, of course, which I'd love to tell you some time when I'm not about to go to bed. But whether you believe there is a God or not, I hope this has raised some doubts about the validity of Marcus Aurelius' seemingly-sensible slogan. If you are going to adopt it as your world view, learn it in Latin. Then it will at least sound impressive, even if it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

PS: I couldn't resist this...

The Bible on sex:
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
Your lips drip nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon...
(Song of Songs 4:10-11)

Marcus Aurelius on sex:
As for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut, and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus.
Heady stuff. No wonder his goddess-wife was playing away. And with that I rest my case. Good night all.


  1. PART 1: Once again I, Anonymous, take slightly dodgy laptop keyboard in hand to write a comment on your blog. This is (a) because, like last time, it bigly entertained and literally tickled me; and (b) because, also like last time, I disagree with a big chunk of it.

    My main reason for disagreeing is the premise that "live a good life" is a soothing one-size-fits-all panacea that lets us off the hook and saves us from having to make an effort or question further. In fact, its very vagueness puts the onus squarely on us to figure out what a good life consists of. In a Judeo-Christian context, such a statement would indeed be a convenient metaphysical get-out-of-jail-free card, because the God of the Old Testament lays down very precise guidelines as to how to behave: the Ten Commandments, numerous strictures mentioned in Deuteronomy and Leviticus as to what kind of meats to eat, how to cut ones hair, and so on. Then the New Testament has Jesus advising you to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, not to commit adultery in your heart, etc, and St.Paul telling you never to put a sock in a toaster or to suck all the juice out of a vampire. Very precise guidelines, printed in black and white. Therefore, deciding that all one ACTUALLY needs to do is basically be kind and friendly to one another could be interpreted as arrogance - assuming we know better than God (although is that really so different from Jesus's teaching that the only true Commandment is to love God and love each other?).

    The Roman gods, by contrast, give no indication of what we mortals are supposed to do, beyond just honouring them. And, since the Romans had shedloads of gods, as opposed to the One God of the Bible, lines of communication were often blurred: what pleased one god was bound to anger at least half a dozen others. Their gods certainly didn't provide us with a moral code to live our lives by; so it was up to us to formulate our own.

    In Marcus Aurelius's day, you say, "it was considered perfectly acceptable for Roman men to keep young boys as slaves, and to use them for sex." People reading his words in the 21st Century probably won’t know that, and certainly wouldn’t assume that if a man who lived in a time when people did those things (and worse, I’m sure) urged us to be “good”, that somehow gives us licence to so them now. Any more than someone reading the Bible would assume that being “good” today would include stoning a woman to death who was not a virgin on her wedding night. If you accept that a society that used slave-boys for sex and wore bras on their heads couldn't reliably come up with an objective definition of "good" that was acceptable to modern society, don't you also have to accept the same for the ancient tribes of Israel?

  2. PART 2: If you die unloved, friendless and alone (and I hope you don't), maybe it isn't much of a comfort to know you have lived a good life. But if you have lived a bad life, this will be no more of a comfort, if anything even less. Plus, if you are good, your chances of having someone to mourn you are greater. Perhaps not much, but greater. I do believe that. In any case, it's difficult to see how opposing MA's philosophy is going to help you.

    I found your comment about helping the odd old lady across the road a tad glib. (I know, I know, that's a bit rich coming from someone who said St Paul told you not to put a sock in a toaster, itself nicked from Eddie Izzard, but what the heck.) To be good in a frighteningly random, apparently cruel, selfish, unjust, blind, mad, unforgiving and sometimes downright nightmarish world isn't an easy option: it requires strength and courage, all the more so for atheists who can't even draw comfort from the expectation of a heavenly reward. Also, I don't necessarily think Marcus is saying that a "just" god is one who agrees with our definition of "good", merely one who accepts that we have attempted throughout life to live by standards of altruism rather than selfishness.

    The main thing that attracts Internet users to MA's philosophy is not its convenient platitudinousness (is that a word?) but its shifting of focus away from devoutness, reverence, piety, severity and righteousness towards freely-flowing natural goodness, humanity and warmth. In an age where the reality of gods was accepted far more readily that it is today, such a statement would have been a shocking, irreverent breath of fresh air. Those whose instincts are basically good will continue to be good if they follow this advice. (No change.) Those whose instincts are basically bad will ignore it. (No change.) And those, like most of us, who lie somewhere in between will find its very non-preachiness (and, yes, blandness) allows their good behaviour to flow more freely.

    Anyway, that's about all. I think I probably had more to say, but it's nearly midnight and I've been drinking a generous quantity of wine as I wrote this. So it might not be very coherent, especially the latter parts. Still, there it is. My disagreements don't in any way detract from my enjoyment of reading your blogs, which is, as always, utter. I take my 32B hat off to you.

  3. PART ONE:
    Dear Anonymous, I am delighted to hear that you have been bigly entertained and literally tickled. I have fond memories of the extraordinary high-pitched noises you make when you are literally tickled. I am also chuffed that you have taken the time to express your disagreement so eloquently, and without resorting to flaming, trolling, stabbing me through the calf, or any of the other wacky things people do on the internets these days to demonstrate opprobrium.

    I must apologise for suggesting that living a good life is the easy option. As you say, choosing to “do the right thing” often involves going against the flow of a world which can be frighteningly random, cruel, unjust, and in which even the simple act of toasting your socks can result in a dangerous house fire. So please forgive my glibbitude.

  4. PART TWO: (Why can't I just stick it all in one long comment? Grrr.)
    That aside, while Marcus might not be encouraging us to take the easy option in how we do good (though there’s a conversation for another time...), I think he’s still encouraging us to be dangerously complacent when it comes to our attitude towards God.

    It’s interesting that you see Marco’s philosophy as something that shifts focus away from “devoutness, reverence, piety, severity and righteousness” and towards “freely-flowing natural goodness, humanity and warmth”. You imply, intentionally or not, that these things - piety and humanity - are somehow opposed - two ends of a spectrum. I think this is a very commonly held view. It crops up in literature and popular culture all over the place - the holier-than-thou pious hard-hearted preacher whose total lack of compassion makes life hell for everyone else. Someone like Judge Frollo from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. (The Disney version, at least. Apparently he’s more nuanced in the book, but I haven’t read that, because it didn’t have singing gargoyles in it.) Contrasted with that we often have the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold meme, or something similar.

    This basically boils down to the view that you can love God, or you can love other people, but that these things tend to be mutually exclusive. I think it’s terribly sad that we have such a view, because it’s a million miles away from what the God of the Bible calls for.

    The ten commandments are an excellent example of this. Everyone has heard of the ten commandments, but I suspect most people, if asked to name them, would manage about six - do not lie, do not steal, do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not covet your neighbour’s wife’s bottom, do not toast your socks. These are the so-called horizontal rules - the “be good to other people” rules. But alongside these are the vertical rules - the “be good to God” rules. In fact, they form the first three: Have no other gods beside God, don’t worship or serve anything other than God, don’t take God’s name in vain. This mix of the “pious” and the “humane” continues throughout the Old Testament law - for example Exodus 21 to 23. The law governing Israel’s relationship to God is part and parcel of the law governing their relationship to each other.

    Jesus continued this teaching - as you point out, he instructs his followers to love God and to love each other.

  5. PART THREE: (The last part, I hope.)
    So the pious man who claims to love God yet clearly hates his fellow man is a liar. At least, whatever God he claims to love is not the God of Judeo-Christian teaching. Examples that spring all-too-readily to mind are the Westboro Baptist Church. (Don’t look them up - their vile hate-spewing filth of a false religion has had far too much publicity already. Thinking about them genuinely makes me want to cry.)

    On the flip-side of that, then, are the people who love their fellow man (or woman, sorry), but who don’t love God. When you ask whether the whole “live a good life” philosophy is “really so different from Jesus's teaching that the only true Commandment is to love God and love each other?”, the answer has to be: Yes. It really is so different. If you don’t love God then you are not living what the God of the Bible calls a good life. Hebrews 11:6 puts it alarmingly starkly: Without faith it is impossible to please God.

    So my main problem with Marcus’ philosophy is this: it assures us that we can live as atheists now, and, if it turns out there was a god after all, no harm done (provided we chose altruism over selfishness). It encourages us to be dangerously complacent. It’s a bit like jumping blindfolded out of an aeroplane, with an unopened parachute on your back, and then saying “I don’t believe there really is a ground below me, but, if it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll just pull the cord.” (Okay, it’s not much like that, but you try finding a better analogy...)

    So I guess my intention is to remove the comfort-zone here - the idea that it doesn’t matter whether or not we were right. That’s the false comfort that Marcus is offering. If there is no God, then fair enough. I treasure your friendship and I’m very glad you are seeking to live a good life - I’ve benefited greatly from it.

    But if the God of the Bible is real, we can’t assume he will be pleased with a life that was spent ignoring or denying him, no matter how well we’ve treated our fellow men. The Marcus Aurelius “wait and see” middle-ground is a very dangerous place to be standing.