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While all these strange moral revolutions were being accomplished the excellent Marcus-Aurelius, casting upon everything a loving and calm regard, bore always his pale visage, his gentle resigned face, and his sickness of heart. He spoke no longer, except in a low voice, and he walked with short steps. His strength sensibly diminished; his sight failed. One day he was obliged to lay down the book he held in his hand. “I am not allowed to read thee any more,” he wrote, “but it is always permitted thee to repulse violence from thy heart, it is always permitted thee to scorn pleasure and pain, it is always permitted thee to be superior to vainglory, it is always permitted thee to declaim against fools and ingrates; better still it is permitted thee to do them good.” Enduring life without pleasure, as without revulsion, resigned to the lot which nature had reserved for him, he did his duty every day, having without ceasing in his mind the thought of death. His wisdom was complete, that is to say, that his weariness was boundless. War, court, the theatre, all alike exhausted him, and yet he did all the good he could, for he did it as his duty. At the point at which he had arrived the love and the hatred of 267men are one and the same thing. Glory is the last of illusions; yet how vain is it! The memory of the greatest man disappears so quickly! The most brilliant courts are those of Hadrian, those great parades in the style of Alexander; what are they if this is not a decoration which passes away, and which is thrown aside as refuse? The actors change, the emptiness of the play is the same.

When some enthusiastic Christians came to realise that they could not any longer hope to see the kingdom of God realising itself, except by fleeing to the desert, the Ammoniouts, the Nils, and the Pacômes shall proclaim the renunciation and disgust of things as the supreme law of life. These masters of the Thebaïde shall not equal in complete separation their crowned brother. He has made some ascetic operations, some receipts like those of the fathers for spiritual life, so as to convince himself by irresistible deductions of universal vanity.

“To scorn the song, the dance, the pancratium, it is sufficient to separate them into their elements. As to music, for example, if you divide any one of the harmonies into sounds, and you ask, concerning each sound, is it there that the charm lies, there would be no longer a charm. In the same way as to dancing; divide the movement into attitudes. In the same way look at the pancratium; in a word, in regard to everything that is not virtue, reduce the object to what composes it by a complete analysis, and by this division you will come to despise it. Apply this process to the whole of life.”

His prayers had a humility and resignation quite Christian.

“Wilt thou, therefore, be one day, my soul, good, simple, perfectly one, naked, more transparent than the material body which enwraps? When wilt thou stay the joy fully of loving all things, when wilt thou be satisfied, independent, without any 268longing, without the least necessity for a living or inanimate being for thy joys? When wilt thou have no longer need nor time to prolong thy pleasures, nor of space or place, or serenity of gentle climates, or even of the society of men? When wilt thou be happy with thy actual condition, content with the present good, persuaded that thou hast all which thou oughtest to have, that everything is good which concerns thee, that everything comes from the gods, that in the future everything shall be equally good—I mean all that they will decide for the preservation of the living being, perfect, good, just, beautiful, who has produced everything, includes everything, contains and comprehends all individual things, which only dissolve themselves to form new like the first? When shalt thou be such, O my soul, that thou shalt be able to live in the city of gods and men in such a way as never to address a complaint to them and never again to need their pardon?”

This resignation became day by day more necessary. For the will which had been thought for a moment to be mastered by the government of the philosophers raised its head in all directions. At bottom the progress wrought by the reigns of Antonine and Marcus-Aurelius had only been superficial. Everything was bordered by a varnish of hypocrisy, by exterior appearances which were taken as caused by the unison of the two wise emperors. The mass of the people was gross, the army had grown weak, the laws only had been improved. What reigned throughout all was a deep gloom. Marcus-Aurelius had in one sense succeeded too well. The ancient world had taken the monk’s cowl like those descendants of the noblesse of Versailles who become to-day Trappists or Carthusians. Unhappy end of those old aristocracies which after the excesses of a youthful 269folly become all at once virtuous, humane, and steady! There is here a symptom that they are about to die. The saintliness of the emperor had obtained in what concerned public opinion a result greater than what could have been looked for, it had made him in some sort sacred in the eyes of the people. There is here a fact honourable to human nature, and which history should no longer omit like so many other melancholy facts. Marcus-Aurelius was exceedingly beloved; popularity, so subject to misunderstand the deserts of men, for once at least has been just. The best of sovereigns has been the best appreciated. But the wickedness of the age took its revenge in other directions. Three or four times the goodness of Marcus-Aurelius injured him.

The great inconvenience of real life, and what renders it unbearable to the higher man, is that, if we bring into it ideal principles, qualities become defects, so much so that very often the accomplished man succeeds less in it than he who has. motives of egotism or vulgar routine. The conscious honesty of the emperor made him commit a prime fault in being persuaded to associate in the government Lucius Verus, towards whom he was under no obligation. Verus was a frivolous and worthless man. It needed miracles of goodness, and delicacy would have been required, to prevent him from making disastrous blunders. The wise emperor, serious and earnest, took about with him in his litter the foolish colleague he had given himself. He always determinedly took him to be serious, he did not once rebel against this tiresome companionship. Like people who have been well brought up, Marcus-Aurelius was annoyed continually; his own manners had always dignity and grace. Minds of this kind, whether it be not to give pain to others, or out of respect to human 270nature, are resigned not to confess that they observe evil. Their life is a perpetual dissimulation. Faustina was in the life of the pious emperor another source of sadness; providence, which guards the education of great minds and works without ceasing to perfect them, prepared in her for him the most painful trials, a woman who did not understand. She began, it would seem, by loving him; probably she even found at first some happiness in that villa at Lorium, when in that beautiful retreat of Lanuvium, under the highest slopes of the Albanian mountains, which Marcus-Aurelius described to Fronton as a residence full of the purest joys. Then she grew weary of too much wisdom. Let us tell all; the fine sentences of Marcus-Aurelius, his austere virtue, his perpetual melancholy, his aversion to everything which resembled a court, must have appeared wearisome to a young woman, capricious, with an ardent temperament, and of marvellous beauty. Some careful researches have reduced to a small matter the deeds which calumny has been pleased to ascribe to the spouse of Marcus-Aurelius. That which remains to her charge is nevertheless grave: she did not love her husband’s friends; she did not enter into his life; she had tastes quite apart from him. The good emperor perceived this, suffered, and was silent. His determined principle to see things as they ought to be, and not as they are, did not give way. In vain did they dare to show him on the stage as a deceived husband. The comedians even went so far as to name Faustina’s lovers in public. He would consent to hear nothing. He would not depart from his constant gentleness. Faustina always remained “his very good and very faithful spouse.” They never succeeded even after she was dead in making him abandon this monstrous falsehood. In a bas-relief, 271which may be seen to this day in Rome, in the museum of the Capitol, while Faustina is raised to heaven by Fame, the excellent emperor follows her from the earth with a look full of love. What is most extraordinary is, that in his beautiful private prayer to the gods, which he wrote upon the banks of the Gran, he thanks them for having given him “a wife so kind, so affectionate, and so simple.” He had come in those last days to create an illusion for himself and to forget everything. But what a struggle he must have gone through to arrive at that! During long years an internal complaint slowly consumed him. The despairing effort which made up the essence of his philosophy, pushed sometimes even to sophism, concealed at bottom a terrible wound. How he must have said adieu to happiness to arrive at such extremes! We can never comprehend all this poor blighted heart suffered, how much bitterness was concealed by that pale face, always calm and half smiling. It is true that the adieu to happiness is the beginning of wisdom, and the most certain means of finding happiness. There is nothing so sweet as the return of joy which follows the renunciation of joy, nothing so lively, so profound, so charming as the enchantment of being disenchanted.

A martyrdom much harder was inflicted upon Marcus-Aurelius in the person of his son Commodus. Nature, by a cruel sport, had given as a son to the best of men a sort of stupid athlete, only skilful at exercises of the body, a superb boy-butcher, ferocious, liking nothing except to kill. His little mind inspired him with a hatred of the intellectual society which surrounded his father. He fell into the hands of blackguards of the lowest kinds, who made of him one of the most odious monsters that have ever been seen. Marcus-Aurelius saw better than any one the impossibility 272of drawing anything out of this mean being, and nevertheless he neglected nothing to educate him well. The best philosophers lectured before the youth. He listened, something in the way in which a young lion would have done, while they taught, and allowed them to say on, yawning and showing long teeth to his masters. Marcus-Aurelius was misled in this matter by his want of practical finesse. He did not bring out his habitual sentiments on the benevolence which should be brought into the opinions and the consideration we owe to those who are not so good as we. The new motives for indulgence which he can give show us his charming good nature. “What evil can the most wicked of men do if thou remainest determinedly gentle to him, if on occasion thou dost exhort him quietly, and givest him, when he would injure thee, some lessons like this: ‘No, no, my child, we are born for other things. It is not I who will bear the harm, but thou thyself, my son.’ Show him dexterously by a general consideration that such is the rule, that neither the bees nor any other animals who live naturally in bands act as he does. No, give him not mockery or insult: let everything be said with a tone of true affection, as coming from a heart which anger has not embittered; do not speak to him as they do at school, nor with a view of obtaining the admiration of the audience, but speak to him with the same ease as if you were alone together.” Commodus (if it is of him he is speaking) was no doubt little sensitive to this paternal rhetoric. There was evidently but one means of preventing the fearful evils that threatened the world; it was, by virtue of the right of adoption, to substitute a person more worthy of that which the chance of birth had designated. Julian particularises even more, and believes that Marcus-Aurelius should have associated in the government his son-in-law 273Pompeius, who would have continued to rule on the same principles as himself.

There are here some things which it is easy to say when the obstacles are no longer there, and when one can reason far from the facts. It is forgotten, first, that the emperors since Nerva who made the adoption system so fruitful had no sons. Adoption, including the disinheriting of son or grandson, we see in the first century of the empire, but not with good results. Marcus-Aurelius, by principle, approved of direct heredity, in which he sees the advantage of preventing competition. Since Commodus was born in 161, he presented him alone to the legions, although he was a twin; often he took him when quite little into his arms and renewed this act, which was a sort of proclamation. Marcus was an excellent father: “I have seen thy little brood,” Fronton writes to him, “and nothing has given me so much pleasure; they resemble thee to such a degree that there has never been in the world such a resemblance. I see thee doubled, so to speak; on the right, on the left, it is thee whom I believe I see. They have, thanks to the gods, the appearance of health, and a good style of crying. One of them holds a morsel of very white bread, like a royal infant; the other, a morsel of house bread, like a true son of a philosopher. Their little voices appear to me so sweet and so gentle that I believe I recognise in their babble the clear and charming sound of thy voice.” These sentiments were those of the whole world; in 166 it is Lucius Verus who asks that the two sons of Marcus, Commodus and Annius Verus, should be made Cæsars. In 172, Commodus shares with his father the title of Germanicus. After the repression of the revolt of Avidius, the senate, to recognise in some way the disinterestedness in family matters which Marcus-Aurelius had shown, demanded by 274acclamation the empire and the tribunal power for Commodus. Already the natural badness of the latter was betrayed by more than one sign known to his pedagogues, but how can one pre-judge by such evil marks the future of a child of twelve years? From 176-177 his father made him imperator, consul, august. It was surely an imprudence, but they were bound by former acts; Commodus, besides, kept himself yet within bounds towards the end of the life of Marcus-Aurelius. The evil revealed itself all at once; at each page of the last books of the Thoughts we see the trace of internal sufferings in the excellent father, the accomplished emperor, who saw a monster growing up beside him, ready to succeed him, and ready to take in everything by antipathy the reverse of what he had seen done among good people.

The thought of disinheriting Commodus must then without doubt have come to Marcus-Aurelius for the first time. But it was too late. After having associated him in the empire, after having proclaimed him so many times as perfect and accomplished before the legions, to go in face of the world, declaring him unworthy, would be a scandal. Marcus-Aurelius was taken by his phrases, by that style of an acknowledged benevolence which was too habitual to him; and after all Commodus was seventeen years of age, and who could be sure he wouldn’t improve? Even after the death of Marcus-Aurelius they could hope. Commodus showed at first an intention to follow the counsels of deserving persons by whom his father had surrounded him. Is it not evident besides that if Pompeius or Pertinax succeeded Marcus-Aurelius, Commodus would become at once the chief of the military party, a continuation of that of Avidius, who held philosophy and the friends of the wise emperor in honour?


We believe, then, that we must judge leniently the conduct of Marcus-Aurelius in these circumstances. He was morally right; but the facts made him wrong. At sight of this wretch, losing the empire by his disgusting life, dragging shamefully among the valets of the circus and the amphitheatre a name consecrated by virtue, one curses the goodness of Marcus; one regrets that the exaggerated optimism which had made him take Verus as his colleague, and which perhaps would never allow him to see all the faults of Faustina, should have made him commit a fault much more grave. According to the public voice, he could so much the better have disinherited Commodus that a story was told, according to which Marcus would have been freed as to this paternal duty. By a sentiment of pious indignation, it was declared that Commodus was not the son of Marcus-Aurelius. To absolve Providence from such an absurdity, they calumniated the mother. When they saw the unworthy son of the best of men fighting in the amphitheatre and comporting himself like an actor of the lowest kind: “He is not a prince,” they said, “he is a gladiator. No, there is no son of Marcus-Aurelius there.” They soon discovered in the band of gladiators some individual in whom they found a resemblance to him, and they affirmed that he was the true father of Commodus. The fact is that all the monuments show the resemblance of Commodus to Marcus, and confirm fully the evidence of Fronton.

Without reproaching Marcus-Aurelius with not having disinherited Commodus, we can only regret that he could not do it. The perfection of the man injured the inflexibility of the sovereign. Capable of endurance, he would perhaps have saved the world, and he would not in anywise have borne the responsibility of the frightful decadence 276which followed. His misfortune was to have had a son. He forgot that the Cæsar is not a man like another, that his first duty is to enter into an arrangement with fate; that is, to divine what the time has marked as a sign. The heredity of dynasties is feudal, in unapplied Cæsarism. This régime is that which of all others produces the best or the worst fruits. When it is not excellent, it is execrable. Atrocious in the first century of our era, while a law of demi-heredity was followed, Cæsarism became splendid in the second, when the principle of adoption had definitely been brought in. The decadence commenced on the day when, by a weakness pardonable since it was inevitable, the best of princes whom adoption had brought to the empire did not follow a custom which had given for leaders to humanity the finest series of good and great princes the world has ever had. To crown the evil, he did not succeed in founding heredity. During the whole of the third century the empire was in the throes of intrigue and violence. The ancient world succumbed then.

For some years Marcus-Aurelius endured this punishment, the most cruel that could be inflicted on a man of heart. His friends of infancy and youth were no more. All this excellent world formed by Antoninus, this solid and distinguished society which believed so profoundly in virtue, had gone down to the grave. Remaining alone in the midst of a generation which knew him no longer, and even desired to be rid of him, with a son at his side making him drink deep of grief, he had before him only the horrible prospect of being the father of a Nero, a Caligula or a Domitian.

“Do not curse death, but make it welcome, since it is of the number of those phenomena which nature wills. The dissolution of our being is a fact as natural as youth, old age, growth, or full maturity. But if 277thou hast need of a very special reflection which should make thee kindly towards death, thou hast only to consider that from which it separates thee, and the moral world with which thy mind shall no longer be mixed. It is not that it is necessary to confound yourself with them; far from that; thou oughtest to love them, to endure them with gentleness. Only it is very necessary to tell thee that there are no people who share the sentiments that thou art leaving; the only motive which could attach us to life and retain us there would be to have the good fortune of finding ourselves with some men who hold the same opinions as we. But, at this hour, thou seest what lacerations are in thy bosom, so that thou criest, ‘O death, do not delay thy coming, lest I should not come, I also, to forget myself!’

“‘He was an honest man; he was a wise man!’ some will say; what shall keep another from saying, ‘See us delivered from this pedagogue; let us breathe! Certainly he was not bad to any of us, but I felt that in his heart he disapproved of us!’ As to the bed of death, this reflection will make thee quit life very readily: ‘I leave this life whence my travelling companions (for whom I have struggled so much, made so many vows, and taken such trouble) desire that I should go, hoping that my death will put them more at their ease.’ What motive could make us, therefore, desire to remain longer here?

“Do not, although in parting, show less benevolence to them; preserve in their view thy habitual character; remain affectionate, indulgent, gentle, and do not assume the appearance of a man who is leaving. It is nature which has formed thy connection with them. See how it breaks it. Ah, well, adieu, friends; I go without force being required to draw me from your midst; for 278this very separation is only conformable to nature.”

The last books of the Thoughts are connected with this period, in which Marcus-Aurelius, remaining alone with his philosophy which no one shares now, has only one thought—that of leaving the world quite gently. It is the same melancholy as in the philosophy of Carnoute; but the hour in the life of the thinker is quite another. At Carnoute, and on the banks of the Gran, Marcus-Aurelius meditates that he may be rendered brave in life. Now, all his thought is only a preparation for death, a spiritual exercise, to arrive adorned as for the altar. All the motives by which we can seek to persuade ourselves that death is not a sovereign injustice for virtuous man he presents to himself; he goes even to sophism, that he may absolve Providence, and prove that man in dying ought to be satisfied.

“The time which the life of man lasts is only a point; his being is a perpetual flux; his sensations are obscure; his body, composed of different elements, tends with himself to corruption; his soul is a whirlwind; his destiny is an insoluble enigma; glory is an undetermined thing. In a word, all that concerns the body is a flowing river; all that concerns the soul is but a dream and smoke; life is a battle, a sojourn in a strange country; posthumous fame is forgotten. What, then, can serve as a guide? One thing, one only—that is philosophy; and philosophy it is to act on the genius who keeps us pure from all stain, stronger than pleasures or sufferings; accepting events and fate as emanations from the source from which it comes itself, at last waiting with a serene frame for death, which it takes to be the simple dissolution of the elements of which every living being is composed. If for the elements 279themselves, this is not an evil like submitting to perpetual metamorphoses, why look with sadness on the change and the dissolution of all things? This change is agreeable to the laws of nature, and nothing is evil that is so.”

Thus, by analysing life, he dissolves it, and renders it little different from death. He arrives at perfect goodness, absolute indulgence, and comparative indifference through pity and disdain. “To pass his life resigned amidst lying and unjust men” —that is the sage’s programme. And he was right. The most solid goodness is that which is founded on perfect weariness, on the clear view of this fact, that everything in this world is frivolous and without any real foundation. In that absolute ruin of everything what remains? Wickedness? Oh! that ought not to be any trouble. Wickedness supposes a certain serious faith in life, faith at least in pleasure, faith in revenge and ambition. Nero believed in art; Commodus believed in the circus; and that made them cruel. But the disabused man who knows that every object of desire is frivolous, why should he give himself the pain of a disagreeable feeling? The goodness of the sceptic is the most secure, and the pious emperor was more than a sceptic; the movement of life in this soul was almost as gentle as the little sounds of the inmost atmosphere of a grave. He had attained the Buddhist nirvana—the peace of Christ. Like Jesus, Çakya-Mouni, Socrates, Francis d’Assisi, and three or four other sages, he had totally conquered death. He could smile at it, for it had really no more meaning for him.

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