A Visit From the Philosopher Emperor

Marcus 1I find it hard to believe that it is almost March, and that this year I’ve only managed to get fingers to keys here in my small patch of cyberspace twice. I thought, when I began this post, that it was going to be about Virginia Woolf — but as you will see, it didn’t turn out that way at all.

Last year I threw myself into the effort of picking a Word of the Month each month and mulling it over, drawing out the meaning I found in it and making sense of how it fitted into my life. I considered doing something similar this year, but found myself unable to settle on a theme.

I did wonder, after watching Gladiator for the umpteenth time, whether I could focus on a list of lesser-sung qualities or pseduo-virtues, much like those offered in the film by Commodus to his dying father, Marcus Aurelius, but know myself well enough to realise I am not the sort of person to hold up ambition as something to aspire to. Ambition may have its purpose and its place, but I am much more likely to agree with Marcus Aurelius himself, the last of the Five Good Emperors, that wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance form the cornerstones of a good character. More to the point, I am also aware that many people have written about such ideals since…well, quite obviously, since Roman times.

I then began pondering whether I would write a series of monthly posts at all.  I don’t mind working under pressure and am generally unfazed by deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), but with a new school and work year offering a far more complicated set of variables than I have had to deal with in recent times, the prospect of a more fluid approach than that I had in 2018 had real appeal. After all, these are meant to the musings — rather than the rantings — of the Daydream Believer, and the prospect of committing to a  monthly post seemed a little, as Commodus might have put it, ambitious.

Marcus 2So, having unfettered myself from all sorts of strictures, I gave myself permission to meander down some old Roman roads, following the trail of the Philosopher Emperor and his wayward son.  Commodus, according to Cassius Dio (who witnessed his actions and antics firsthand), was “not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.” Ouch.

On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius is generally well remembered: he was the last of the Roman Emperors to be associated with the Pax Romana — a period of relative peace and stability through the Roman Empire which, almost miraculously, lasted for more than two centuries. Our old friend Cassius Dio says that after Marcus Aurelius died, the Roman Empire turned “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.

Before he departed this life, however, that old Stoic Marcus Aurelius had some things to say that are quite possibly as relevant today as when he wrote them, back in the second century.  “The soul,” he said, “becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”

These, history tells us, are some of the thoughts which coloured Marcus Aurelius’ soul:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

You have power over your mind — not outside events.  Realise this, and you will find strength.

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.

They’re not bad are they? It’s probably a shame that Commodus didn’t listen to his dear old Dad…but at least history has preserved Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Cassius Dio’s Roman History for us all to dip into whenever we wish to.

Marcus 3So that’s what I think I’ll be getting up to this year: delving into the thoughts of people who I happen to find interesting, diving into the depths and exploring topics and stories and ideas I find intriguing. I suspect that Virginia Woolf might get a look in somewhere — I know she tried to today, but Commodus must have had other ideas — and maybe Frida Kahlo, and Ursula Le Guin and goodness knows who else I happen to encounter.

It will be a twisting, turning, and somewhat eclectic journey, I’d imagine, but this — as always — is an open invitation to join me and whoever I visit along the way.

 

The Well-Daemoned Creative

EudaimoniaThe Ancient Greeks, it seems to me, knew stuff.

Lots of stuff.

Especially the sort of stuff that goes on inside human heads. In fact, thousands of years ago, they had sorted out more stuff than I can even imagine (and, as Han Solo once said to Luke Skywalker, I can imagine a quite a bit).

And they also had words for things to explain just how well they understood stuff — amazing words like eudaimonia. Sure, it might be a bit of mouthful to the average English speaking Joe or Jai, but when I discovered the word (this morning, straight after the courier delivered a parcel of books to my front door), I felt those teeny tiny hairs on the back of my neck rise. In a good way, people.

Eudaimonia translates as “human flourishing”, and was used in ancient Greece to describe the highest degree of happiness, a state of being characterised by not only by happiness itself, but also by health and prosperity. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But it’s the etymology of the word that gives my inner geek the tingles: it comes from the Greek words eu, meaning ‘good’ and daimon, meaning ‘guardian spirit’. And the exciting part, as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic, is that when you put those words together you get “well-daemoned”, or “nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide”. (And, yes, you now have to imagine me delivering my best Molly Meldrum impression when I tell you to do yourself a favour and get a copy of Big Magic…it’s an absorbing read).

But, as usual, I digress — let’s get back to eudaimonia. The idea that creative inspiration is something external to one’s self is not unique to the Greeks. The Romans, those other giants of the ancient world, also externalised the concept. As Gilbert says:

The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius — your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.

In this ego-driven twenty-first century world, the ancient perspective is remarkably refreshing: that creativity is bestowed, by a genius the artist might be obliged to thank for the inspiration. Or, conversely, should the artist’s work be found somehow lacking, the same genius could be called upon to take some of the blame. Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it, creative types? Pesky old ego is removed from the equation…and, in Gilbert’s words once again, the artist is protected: “Protected from the corrupting influence of praise. Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.”

Inside JobBut there is a catch.

(You know there always is).

In order to get close to anything resembling eudaimonia, this highest level of human happiness, you have to do the hard yards too. It’s not as simple as having some Jiminy Cricket-like muse sitting on your shoulder telling you what to do — there’s not much point in having an external creative spirit guiding your creative pursuits if you don’t actively pursue them. Not surprisingly, human flourishing doesn’t just happen: it demands that we show up, that we find time, that we live authentically — in alignment with those things that make us our best selves.

 

AristotleAnyone who creates regularly and deliberately will tell you that yes, there are those fabled golden moments when whatever you are creating flows from you effortlessly. They are magical moments, and I do mean that literally. But the point is you have to be there, already creating, for those moments to happen. And no one can do that for you. You have to have the courage to do it for yourself.

It’s about following your passion, in whatever small moments are available to you. It’s about discovering, as Aristotle suggested, where the needs of the world and your talents intersect, and finding your vocation. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating chucking in your job, leaving your family or withdrawing from society to pursue the creative: my strong suspicion is that you can’t get close to eudaimonia unless you’re actively involved in all those things, and in whatever you are inspired to create.

So find the time, if you can, to do what makes your soul sing.

ScrapsListen to that funny little guardian spirit — the one who has either been waiting patiently for you, or has been yammering away at you to do something for so long that it might just fall off your shoulder in shock when you finally pick up that paintbrush, or write that poem, or sew that dress.

Let’s honour creativity and make it an essential part of our lives — for our happiness, health and prosperity.

Let’s be more than humans being.

Let’s become humans flourishing.