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Too little concerned about what passed in the rest of the world, the government of Marcus-Aurelius seemed to exist only for home progress. The only great organised empire which touched the Roman frontier, that of the Parthians, yielded before the legions. Lucius Verus and Aridius Cassius conquered some provinces which Trajan had only shortly occupied: Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Adiabene. The real danger was beyond the Rhine and the Danube. There lived in a threatening obscurity some energetic people, for the most part Germans in race, whom the Romans scarcely knew save by the handsome and faithful body-guard (the Swiss of that age), which certain emperors loved to keep, or by the superb gladiators who, unveiling all at once in the amphitheatre the beauty of their 141naked forms, called forth the intense admiration of the audience.

To conquer step by step this impenetrable world, to make the limits of civilisation extend league after league: to establish itself strongly in Bohemia, in the central quadrilateral of Europe, where there might still be a considerable nucleus of Celtic Boïans; from thence to advance like the backwoodsman of America to destroy tree after tree of the Hercynian forest, to substitute colonies for these tribes without association with the soil, to fix and civilise those peoples full of a future, to cause the empire to be benefited by their rare qualities, their solidity, their corporeal force, their energy; to extend the true frontiers of the empire, on one side to the Oder or the Vistula, on the other to the Pruth or the Dneister, and to give thus to the Latin portion of the empire a decided preponderance, which should prevent the schism of the Greek or Oriental portion; instead of building that fatal Constantinople, to place the second capital at Bâle or Constance, and to secure thus for the great good of the empire to the Celto-German peoples, the political beginning which they might conquer later on upon the ruins of the empire—this would have been the programme of the enlightened Romans, if they had been better informed as to the state of Europe and Asia, geography and comparative ethnography.

The badly-arranged expedition of Varus (year 10 of J. C.) and the eternal breach it left in the number of the legions were like a fan which turned Roman thought from the great Germany. Tacitus alone saw the importance of this region as the equilibrium of the world. But the state of division in which the Germanic tribes were, lulled to sleep the disquietude which sagacious minds ought to have felt. Indeed, while those people, more concerned with local independence than centralisation, did 142not form a military aggregation, they gave little cause for fear. But their confederations were very great. Men knew what result that had which was formed in the third century on the right bank of the Rhone under the name of France. About the year 166, a powerful league was formed in Bohemia, Moravia and the north of the present Hungary. The names of a multitude of nations, which were later on to fill the world, were heard for the first time. The great advance of the barbarians commenced; the Germans, up till now unassailable, attacked. The banks of the Danube were burst in the region of Austria and Hungary, towards Presbourg, Comorn and Gran. All the German and Slav peoples, from France to the Danube, Marcomans, Quades, Narisques, Hermunduri, Suevi, Sarmatians, Victovales, Roxolans, Bastarnes, Costoboques, Alaris, Pencins, Vandals and Jazyges, assembled with one accord to force the frontier and inundate the empire. Pressure came from the farthest point. Reinforced by some septentrional barbarians, probably the Goths, the whole Slav and Germanic mass appeared in motion; these barbarians, with their wives and children, wished to be received into the empire, seeking for some land and money, offering in return their arms for any kind of military service. It was a veritable human cataclysm. The line of the Danube was broken. The Vandals and Marcomans established themselves in Pannonia; Dacia was trampled over by twenty peoples; the Costoboques advanced as far as Greece; Rhetia and Norica were overrun; the Marcomans crossed the Julian Alps, took up their position before Aquiba, pillaging everything up to Pavia. Before this fearful shock the Roman army yielded; the number of captives taken by the barbarians was enormous; the alarm was great in Italy; it was declared that, since the tithe of the Carthaginian 143wars, Rome had never had to meet such a furious attack.

It is a well-authenticated truth that the philosophical progress of the laws does not correspond always to a progress in the power of the State. War is a brutal thing; it has brutal desires; often it thus happens that moral and social improvements bring with them military weakness. The army is a remnant of barbarism, which the man of progress preserves as a necessary evil; and it is rarely that one does with success what is done as a last shift. Antoninus had already a strong dislike to the use of arms; under his reign the manners of the field were much softened. One cannot deny that the Roman army had not lost, under Marcus-Aurelius, a part of its discipline and vigour. Recruiting had become difficult; the replacing and enrolment of the barbarians had entirely changed the character of the legion; doubtless Christianity had already drained the best of the State’s strength. When one thinks that by the side of this decrepitude there were acting bands of men without country, engaged in the working of the ground, not caring but to kill, seeking nothing but war, should this be even against their own relatives, it was clear that a great substitution of races would ensue. Civilised humanity had not as yet so subdued evil as to be able to abandon itself to the dream of progress through peace and morality.

Marcus-Aurelius, before this colossal assault of the whole barbarian world, was truly admirable. He did not like war, and never engaged in it but against his desire; but when he did it, he did it thoroughly; he made a great captain through duty. A terrific pestilence was joined to the war. Thus tried, Roman society appealed to all its traditions and rites; and there was, as is common in the time of such a scourge, a 144reaction in favour of the national religion. Marcus-Aurelius lent himself to this. We see the good emperor presiding himself in his quality as grand pontiff at the sacrifices, taking the blade of a javelin in the temple of Mars, plunging it into the blood, and throwing it towards the direction of heaven in which the enemy was. Everybody was armed, slaves, gladiators, bandits, diogmites (police agents); some German troops were levied against the Germans; money was coined out of precious objects in the imperial property, to save the establishment of new taxes.

The life of Marcus-Aurelius was henceforth almost entirely passed in the region of the Danube at Carnoute, near Vienna, or at Vienna itself upon the banks of the Gran in Hungary, sometimes at Sirmium. His ennui was tremendous; but he knew how to conquer it. Those tasteless campaigns against the Quades and the Marcomans were very well conducted; the disgust he felt for them did not prevent him from putting into them the most conscientious application. The army loved him, and did its duty thoroughly. Moderate even towards his enemies, he preferred a plan of campaign long but sure to dashing blows; he delivered Pannonia completely, repulsed all the barbarians on the left bank of the Danube, made even great points beyond that river, and prudently practised the tactics, which have been abused at a later day, of opposing barbarians to barbarians.

Paternal and philosophic towards these hordes of half-savages, he was determined, out of respect to himself, to preserve towards them considerations which they could not understand, in the same way as a gentleman who, by force of his own personal dignity, behaves towards Red-skins as to well-educated people. He preached artlessly to them of reason and justice, and he finished by 145inspiring them with respect. Perhaps, but for the revolt of Aridius Cassius, he would have succeeded in making a province of Marcomania (Bohemia), another of Sarmatia (Galicia), and so have saved the future. He admitted the German soldiers to his legions on a large scale; he gave lands in Dacia, Pannonia, and Media, in Roman Germany, to those who wished to work, but maintained very firmly the military boundary, established a rigorous police on the Danube, and did not allow the prestige of the empire to suffer a single time from the concessions which policy and humanity drew from him.

It was in the course of one of these expeditions that, encamped on the banks of the Gran, in the midst of the monotonous plains of Hungary, he wrote the finest pages of the exquisite work which has revealed his whole soul. What cost Marcus-Aurelius most in these distant wars was his being deprived of the ordinary society of learned men and philosophers. Nearly all had drawn back before the fatigues, and remained at Rome. Occupied the whole day in military exercises, he passed the evenings in his tent alone with himself. There he disembarrassed himself of all the constraint which his duties imposed on him; he made his examination of his conscience, and thought of the nobleness of the struggle he so valiantly maintained. Sceptical as to war, even while he made it, and diving into the contemplation of universal vanity, he doubts the lawfulness of his own victories: “The spider is proud when it seizes a fly,” he wrote; “another is proud when he takes a leveret; a third when he takes a pilchard; another when he takes a wild boar; and another still when he takes some Sarmatians. Looked at from real principles they are brigands.” The Conversations of Epictetes, by Arrien, was the favourite book of the emperor; he 146read these with delight, and, without intending it, he was led to imitate them. Such was the origin of these detached thoughts, forming twelve books, which were collected after his death under the title of On the subject of Himself.

It is probable that for a good while Marcus kept a journal special to his mental condition. He wrote there in Greek the maxims to which he betook himself for strength, reminiscences of his favourite authors, passages from the moralists who struck him most, the principles which during the day had sustained him, sometimes reproaches which his scrupulous conscience thought should be addressed to himself.

“We seek for solitary retreats, rustic cottages, the sea shore, mountains; like others, thou lovest to dream of all this. What childishness, since every hour thou art allowed to retire into thine own soul! No part of man has a more peaceful retreat, especially if it possesses in itself some of those things whose contemplation suffices to bring it calmness. Learn then to enjoy this retreat, and renew .thy strength there. Have there these short fundamental maxims, which will at once bring serenity to thy soul, and send thee back in a condition to support with resignation the world to which thou must needs return.”

During the gloomy winters of the north this consolation became still more necessary. He was more than fifty; old age came on him pre-maturely. One evening all the images of his pious youth came back to his memory, and he passed some delightful hours in reckoning what he owed to each of the good beings who had surrounded him.

“Examples from my ancestor Verus; sweetness of manner, and unalterable patience.

“Qualities which have been taken from my father147—the remembrance he has left me—modesty and a manly character.

“ Souvenir of my mother: her piety, her kindness; purity of soul, which went so far as to abstain, not only from doing evil, but even from conceiving the thought of it; a frugal life, and what resembles so little the luxury of the rich.”

Then there appeared to him in his turn Diognetes, who inspired him with the taste for philosophy, rendering the pallet so pleasant in his eyes, its coverlet consisting of a simple skin and the apparatus of Hellenic discipline; Junius Rusticus, who taught him to shun all affectation of elegance in style, and lent him the Conversations of Epictetes; Apollonius of Chalcis, who realised the stoic ideal of extreme firmness and perfect sweetness; Sextus of Cheroneus, so grave and so good; Alexander of Cotia, who showed such refined politeness; Fronton, “who taught him what there was of envy, duplicity and hypocrisy in a tyrant, and what hardness there may be in the heart of a patrician;” his brother, Severus, who caused him to know Thrasea Helvidius; Cato; Brutus, who gave him the idea of what a free State is, where the rule is the natural equality of the citizens and the equality of their laws, of a monarchy which respects before all the liberty of the citizens; and, dominating all the others with his pure greatness, Antoninus, his father by adoption, whose portrait he traces for us with a reduplication of gratitude and love.

“I thank the gods,” he says in closing, “for having given me good ancestors, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, and in my household, in my neighbours, in my friends, people nearly all moved by kindness. Never do I allow myself to act with any want of respect towards them; by my natural disposition, I might have on some occasion committed an irreverence; but the goodness of the 148gods has not permitted that to arise. I owe likewise to the gods my having preserved pure the flower of my youth; having not having been made a man of before the age, of having even delayed that; having been educated under the law of a prince and a father, who separated my mind from all the smoke of pride, and made me understand that it is possible—while living in a palace, surrounded by guards, by splendid dresses, by torches and statues —that a prince can compress his life within the limits of that of a simple citizen, without showing with all that less nobleness or strength when he is to act as emperor and treat of State affairs. They have vouchsafed to me likewise to meet a brother whose manners were a continual exhortation to watch over myself, at the same time that his deference and attachment made the joy of my heart. . . . . If I have had the good fortune to raise those who have guided my education to the honours they seemed to desire; if I have known Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; if often there has been presented to me, surrounded with so much light, the image of a life conformed to nature (I remained on this side of that goal it is true—but it is my own fault); if anybody has resisted till this hour the rough life I lead; if I have not touched either Benedicta nor Theodotus; if, in spite of my frequent anger against Rusticus, I have never passed the bounds, nor done anything I have had cause to repent of; if my mother, who died young, was able to pass near me her last years; if, every time I have wished to come to the help of some poor or afflicted person, I have never had to say that gold or silver were wanting; if I myself have not needed to receive anything from anyone; if fate has given me a wife so complaisant and so guileless; if I have found so many people capable of educating my children; if, at the outset of my passion for 149philosophy, I did not become the prey of some sophist;—it is to the gods I owe it all. Yes; such good things cannot but be the effect which the help of the gods and a happy fortune have rendered me.”

This divine candour breathes through every page. Never has one written more simply for himself, for the sale end of emptying his heart, with no other witness than God. Not a shadow of system here! Marcus-Aurelius, to speak properly, has no philosophy; although he owes nearly everything to Stoicism, transformed by the Roman mind, he is of no school. According to our taste he has too little curiosity, for he does not know all that a contemporary of Ptolemy and Gallien could learn; he has on the system of the world some opinions which were not on a level with the loftiest science of his time. But his moral thought, thus set free from every tie to any system, gains by that a peculiar elevation. The author of the book of The Imitation himself, although much drawn away from the quarrels of the schools, does not reach so far; for his manner of feeling is essentially Christian; putting away Christian dogmas, his book loses more than a part of its charm. The work of Marcus-Aurelius, not having any dogmatic basis, shall eternally preserve its freshness. Everyone, from the atheist, or he who believes himself to be such, to the man most absorbed in the special belief of each cult, can find there some edifying truths. It is the most purely human book there is. He does not trench upon any controverted question. In theology, Marcus-Aurelius floats between pure Deism, Polytheism understood in a physical sense after the manner of the Stoics, and a sort of cosmic Pantheism. He does not hold more to the one hypothesis than the other, and he uses indifferently three vocabularies, the Deistic, Polytheistic, and 150Pantheistic. His considerations have always two faces, according as God and the soul have or have not reality. “To quit the society of men has nothing very terrible, if there are gods; and if there are no gods, or if they are not occupied with human things, what is the use of living in a world empty of gods and empty of providence; But certainly there are gods, and they have human affairs at heart.”

It is the dilemma we feel every hour; for if it is materialism the most complete which is right, we who have believed in the true and the good shall be no more duped than others. If idealism is right, we shall have been the true sages, and we shall have been in the only position which we ought to have taken, that is to say, without any interested hope, without having reckoned on any remuneration.

Marcus-Aurelius is not therefore a freethinker; he is even scarcely a philosopher, in the special sense of the word. Like Jesus, he has no speculative philosophy; his theology is entirely contradictory; he has no fixed idea on the soul and immortality. How profoundly moral was he without the beliefs which are regarded to-day as the foundations of morality! How eminently religious was he without having professed any of the dogmas of what is called natural religion! It is that which it is useful to seek for here.

The doubts which, from the point of view of speculative reason, soar over the truths of natural religion, are not, as Kant has admirably shown, accidental doubts, susceptible of being removed, belonging, as has sometimes been imagined, to certain conditions of the human mind. These doubts are inherent in the very nature of the truths, and one can say without paradox that, if they were removed, the truths which they attack 151would disappear at the same blow. Let us suppose, indeed, a direct proof, positive, evident to all, of future reward and punishment, where should be the merit of doing good? Only fools would they be who, in the gaiety of their heart, would run to their own damnation. A multitude of base souls would lay their salvation cards on the table; they would in some sense “force the hand” of the Deity. Who would see in such a system either morality or religion? In moral and religious matters, it is indispensable to believe without demonstration; certainty is not concerned, but faith. See what a certain Deism forgets, with its habits of intemperate affirmation. It forgets that too precise beliefs upon human destiny take away all moral merit. For our part, if men would set forth a peremptory argument of this sort, we should do as St. Louis did, when they spoke to him about the miraculous wafer; we should refuse to go to look! What need have we of these vulgar proofs, which have no application except in the gross order of facts, and which would annoy our freedom? We should fear to be likened to those speculators on virtue or those timorous vulgarians, who import into the things of the soul the gross egotism of practical life. In the first days which followed the establishment of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, this sentiment was produced in the most touching way. The true friends of the heart, the tender one loved better to believe without proof than to see him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!” became the “word” of the situation. Charming word! Eternal symbol of tender and generous idealism, which is horrified to touch with its hands what should not be seen except with the heart!

Our good Marcus-Aurelius, on this point as on all others, anticipated the ages. Never does he care to 152put himself in sympathy with himself as to God and as to the soul. As if he had read the Kritik of Pure Reason, he sees well enough that, since the infinite is in question, no formula is absolute, and that in such a matter there is no chance of having perceived the truth once in one’s life if it has been much disproved. He separates widely moral beauty from all received theology; he does not allow the right of resting any metaphysical opinion on the first cause. Never was the intimate union with the hidden God pushed to more unheard-of refinements.

“Offer to the government of God him who is in himself a manly being, ripe in age, a friend of the public good, a Roman, an emperor, a soldier at his post, waiting the signal of the trumpet, a man ready to quit life without regret. There are some grains of incense destined for the same altar; the one falls sooner, the other later into the fire; but the difference is nothing. Man ought to live according to nature during the few days which are given to him on earth, and, when the moment of his withdrawal is come, to submit himself with sweetness, as an olive which, in falling, blesses the tree which has produced it, and renders thanks to the branch which bore it. All that is arranged for thee arrange for me, O cosmos. Nothing is to me premature or late of what in thy view comes in season. I take my fruit of what thy seasons bring, O Nature! From thee comes everything: in thee is everything: towards thee goes everything.

‘City of Cecrops, how I love thee!’

said the poet; why not say:

‘City of Jupiter, how I love thee!’

“O man! thou hast been a citizen in a great city; what does it matter whether it has been three 153or five years? What is conformable to the laws is not unjust to any one. What, then, is very vexatious in being sent from the city not by a tyrant, not by an unjust judge, but by that nature itself which brought thee into it? It is as if a comedian were dismissed from the theatre by the same manager who has engaged him. ‘But,’ thou wilt say, ‘I have not played out the five acts; I have only played three.’ You answer rightly; but in life three acts are sufficient to make up the whole piece. He who scores up the end is he who after having been the cause of the combination of the elements is now the cause of their dissolution; thou art nothing in the one or other of these facts.

“Go therefore content; for he who dismisses thee is without wrath.”

Do we say that he is not revolted sometimes by the strange lot which is pleased to leave man alone face to face, with his eternal wants of devotion, sacrifice, heroism, and nature, with his transcendent immorality, its supreme disdain for virtue? No. Once, with less absurdity, the colossal injustice of death strikes him. But soon his temperament, completely mortified, reveals and calms itself.

“How is it that the gods who have ordered all things so well and with so much love for man should have neglected a single point, viz., that men of approved virtue, who have had during their lifetime a sort of fellowship with the Deity, who are beloved by him because of their pious actions and sacrifices, should not revive after death, but are blotted out for ever? Since the matter is so, learn that, if it ought to have been otherwise, it would have been so; for if that had been just it would have been possible; if that had been agreeable to nature, nature would have carried it out. Therefore, from this which is not so, 154strengthen thyself by this consideration, that it was necessary that it should not be so. Thou seest for thyself that how to make such a search is to dispute with God as to his right. Now we should not dispute thus against the gods, if they were not sovereignly good and just; and if they are so, they have not allowed anything to take place in the ordering of the world which is contrary to justice or reason.”

Ah, this is too much resignation, dear master! If it were truly thus we have the right to complain. To say, that if this world has not its counterpart, the man who is sacrificed for good or for the truth should quit contentedly and absolve the gods, is too guileless! No, he has a right to blaspheme them! For indeed, why should they so abuse his credulity? Why have put in him those deceptive instincts, of which he has been the honest dupe? Why this premium given to the frivolous or wicked man? Is it then not he who is not deceived who is the prudent man? . . . . But then cursed be the gods who placed their preferences so badly! I wish the future were an enigma; but if there be no future this world is a frightful ambuscade. Remark, indeed, that our desire is not that of the gross vulgarian. What we wish is not to see the punishment of the guilty, nor to touch the interests of our virtue. What we desire has nothing egotistical in it; it is simply to be, to remain in connection with the light, to continue our thought begun, to know more of it, to enjoy one day that truth which we seek with so much labour, to see the triumph of the good we have loved. Nothing more legitimate. The worthy emperor, besides, felt this well. “What! The light of a lamp shines up to the moment when it is extinguished, and loses nothing of its brightness; and truth, justice, temperance, which are in thee, shall go out with thee!” All his life was passed in this 155noble hesitation. If he sinned, it was from too much piety. Less resigned, he would have been more just; for surely, to demand that he should be a close and sympathetic spectator with struggles for the good and true, that would not have been to ask too much.

It is possible also, that if his philosophy had been less exclusively moral, if it had implied a more curious study of history and the universe, it would have escaped certain excesses of rigour. Like the ascetic Christians, Marcus-Aurelius sometimes pushed this renunciation even to dryness and subtilty. This calm which never leaves him, we feel, is obtained by an immense effort. Certainly, evil had never any attraction for him; he had not to fight with any passion: “Let them do and say what they will,” he writes, “I must be a good man, as the emerald might say, ‘Let them do or say what they like, I must be an emerald and keep my colour.’” But to keep himself always on the icy summit of Stoicism, it was needful that he should do cruel violence to nature and cut out more than one noble part of it. That perpetual repetition of the same reasonings, those thousand images under which he sought to represent the vanity of everything, those often artless proofs of universal frivolity, evidence the combats which he had to fight to extinguish in him all desire. Sometimes the result of it is something bitter and gloomy; the reading of Marcus-Aurelius fortifies, but does not comfort; it leaves in the soul a void, at once delicious and cruel, which one would not exchange for full satisfaction. Humility, renunciation, severity over self have never been pushed further. Glory, that last illusion of great souls, is reduced to nothing. He can do good without disquieting himself, if no one knows of it. It is clear that history will speak of him; but how unworthily will it speak? Absolute 156mortification, when it was reached, had extinguished self-love within him to the last shred. One might even say that this excess of virtue has injured him. Historians have taken him at his word. Few great reigns have been worse treated by the historiographer. Marius Maximus and Dion Cassius speak of Marcus with affection but without talent; their works, besides, do not reach us but in scraps, and we do not know the life of the illustrious sovereign except by the mediocre biography of Jules Capitolin, written a hundred years after his death, thanks to the admiration which the emperor Diocletian had devoted to him.

Fortunately the little casket which enclosed the thoughts by the banks of the Gran and the philosophy of Carmoute was saved. It came forth from this incomparable book, in which Epictetes was surpassed, this manual of resigned life, this Gospel for those who do not believe in the supernatural, which could not have been better understood than it may in our days. A veritable eternal Gospel, the book of the Thoughts will never grow old; for it affirms no dogma. The Gospel has aged in some portions; science does not permit any longer the admission of the artless conception of the supernatural which makes its basis. The supernatural is not in the Thoughts, except a little insignificant spot which does not mar the marvellous beauty of the whole. Science may destroy God and the soul, while the book of the Thoughts remains young yet in life and truth. The religion of Marcus-Aurelius, as was occasionally that of Jesus, is the absolute religion—that which results from the simple fact of a high moral conscience placed face to face with the universe. It is neither of one race nor of one country. No revolution, no advance, no discovery, can change it.

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