We like to think that we’re so advanced. That things have changed so radically since the ancient days of tyrants and barbarism. But have they?
Here’s a photo of Jamal Khashoggi’s son, whose father was brutally executed mere days before, being forced to shake the hand of the alleged mastermind of his father’s murder: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There’s a television camera in the background, and each man probably has an iPhone in his pocket, but it’s a scene reminiscent of the story told by Seneca straight of the reign of Emperor Caligula; one in which Caligula kills a man’s son and forces the man to have dinner with him).
Marcus Aurelius is often criticized for some of his depressing observations about the brutality of human nature and its excesses. He seems to take almost a perverse pleasure in pointing out how evil and pathetic man has been. He reminds himself that in the age of Vespasian (a forgotten emperor) people were killing and lying and stealing just as readily as they were smiling, raising children, and writing books. The age of Trajan, which came a half-century later, was the same. “Survey the record of other eras,” Marcus points out, “and see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them.”
Today, thousands of years later, things are inarguably better…and yet they are still in many ways inarguably the same. Injustices happen. Tyrants exist. Bad luck befalls us, evil lurks in the shadows. We are tested. We are challenged. We wish it could be otherwise, but that’s just not the way it is or will ever be.
So what do we do with this knowledge? First, we return to first principles, to humility. We are not all that different or superior to the ancestors we so casually judge. Man’s nature is deeply ingrained and, despite our best efforts, very difficult to change.
Second, we prepare ourselves for the very worst. The security and progress that surrounds us is an illusion. A couple days without food or water, or a couple years of rising unemployment, and you’ll see how uncivilized civil society can get. To think that we are past any of this merely because times are currently prosperous is profoundly misguided.
And finally, we cultivate dignity, self-respect, and endurance as the most important traits in our lives. Whether we are called to shake hands with a killer or live through the reign of a divisive, petty, and unqualified leader, all we can do is struggle onwards, doing the best we can, with what is in our power to control.