The Real Wisdom of the Galdiator

A most fortunate, and serendipitous, event of my life was seeing a Hollywood epic about an Italian who dispassionately chops his fellow Romans down to size.

Teenage boys being who they are, my sons sprinted to the local Blockbuster when the brawling saga Gladiator came out on video. The movie tells the sad but visually stunning story of the bold protegee of the last great Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. As played by the handsome and morose Russell Crowe, the protegee, General Maximus, sees his family slaughtered as a result of the soulless greed of Marcus Aurelius’s evil son Cattalus, and he then fate carries him toward the gruesome business of vengeance. Of gore there is plenty, as I suppose there was back in the day, and in the end, as is often the case in life, the great Maximus both wins and loses.

But much more important is a personal, and philosophical, subtext of the film; this theme has less to do with the sensational struggles of the gladiator than with profound teachings of his mentor.

Marcus Aurelius, of course, was a real person, the second century ruler under whom the Empire reached its greatest size. But despite the massive bloodshed invariably involved in the gruesome project of empire building, he knew that soon enough his domain, like all things, would crumble and its mighty battles would be forgotten by all but a few historians. He knew this because he was more than an emperor; he was a man, wise and wry enough to write that “wherever man can live, there he can also live well… He can live well even in a palace.”

As the moribund Maximus slew his last and greatest opponent and the credits rolled I was moved to assail my bookshelf, and there, after a brief tussle, I extracted the text that was the dimly recalled goal of my search; a dense tome called Meditations, authored by none other than the great emperor himself.

I had not touched it since some freshman survey class a quarter century before and so the pages were thick with dust but, fortunately, the wisdom within was hardly damaged by the years of neglect. As I at last turned those pages I learned that Marcus Aurelius was a devotee of Stoicism, a philosophy that sternly preaches the big three; understanding, acceptance, rationality.

Of course in hyper-expressive America Stoicism has all the appeal of an IRS audit, an afternoon of root canals, or a six hour cross-examination by an ego-deficient attorney. Stoicism says to live as a member of society but nonetheless to examine all with a wisdom tempered by an awareness of our transience; “Constantly remember how many physicians are dead after contracting their eyebrows over the sick so many times; and how many astrologers, after predicting with great to-do the deaths of others; and how many philosophers, after endless discourses on death or immortality; how many heroes, after killing thousands; how many tyrants, after using their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence…”

All the boisterousness, all the vainglorious straining after glory, or love, or justice, all of it alike will in time come to the same dust that now lines the pages of his writings. Death, when befriended, is a most trusted and faithful advisor. He voices the Samurai philosophy to follow centuries later on the other side of the world; “Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; then live out according to nature the remainder which is allowed you.” The loathsome turmoil of life is a product of brevity of vision; “This is the chief thing: Do not be perturbed, for all things are according to the law of nature; and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere, like Hadrian and Augustus.” It is a sign of the elevation of his philosophy that it allows one to look upon a great and powerful emperor with pity and compassion.

Marcus Aurelius would no doubt appreciate the irony that within a gory profit driven Hollywood spectacle is his hard kernel of philosophical detachment; “Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” The Stoic does not seek revenge, and would take no pleasure, unlike the movie’s protagonist, as he sinks his knife into his adversary, for it represents a failure to perceive one’s role in the complex workings of the universe; “Does another do me wrong? Let him look to it. The disposition was his and the activity was his. I have what universal nature wills me to have; and I do what my own nature wills me to do.” And then he continues on to define the sweetest reward; “The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer.”

Maintaining the balance of a Stoic in the face of life’s vicissitudes does require the ferocity of a gladiator, but the gladiator’s fury is directed toward restraint rather than attack, toward acceptance rather than agitation; “Nothing happens to any man which he is not framed by nature to bear.” There is a sense in all things, but we are not privy to its essential structure, so a faithful acceptance of our lot is our refuge and our greatest achievement. Long before the day of the cognitive behavioral psychologists he understood that our power is founded on what we allow to occupy our minds; “Such as are your constant thoughts, such will be the character of your mind; for the soul is colored by the thoughts.”

So this is the word of the real gladiator; if you lose your wife or husband, do your best to continue to be kind and compassionate. If your kids grow up and forget to call home, try to bring your hard won wisdom to those who might hear it. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Remember, you’re part of something much larger than yourself, larger than yourself or your family or your community or your country or your world, and it’s going where it’s going whatever you do. But in hard times take comfort in the hard wisdom of Stoicism; “Soon you will have forgotten all things; and soon all things will have forgotten you.”