It’s not that our ancestors didn’t know what was right, it was that they had trouble fully getting there.
In the opening pages of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius describes how the early Stoics like Thrasea, Helvidius, and Cato inspired him to believe in a “society of equal laws, governed by equality of status and of speech, and of rules who respect the liberty of their subjects above all else.”
Nothing is more important or just than that, Marcus believed. And yet he ruled a Rome that could not have been further from it in many ways.
Consider Thomas Jefferson’s opening to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Beautiful words expressing powerful ideals, even though their creator was the owner of dozens of slaves who could not have been further from living those ideals.
In a sense, the arc of the history of justice and progress has been less about innovation and more about realization. What America did in the 18th century was bring the world closer to Marcus’s vision than ever before; what Lincoln did in the 19th century was bring America closer to Jefferson’s vision than Jefferson had; and what Martin Luther King Jr. did in the 20th century was bring America closer still to the vision of Lincoln. Each one of these great heroes was fulfilling the work of the heroes that came before them, each one was trying to help us realize the justice we believed in but had not yet managed to achieve.
Well, that is the work that must continue today. Here we are in the 21st century. We must get closer to those beautiful visions. We must move the ball forward, but also in a sense backward—toward that timeless and true sense of what is right and fair. We don’t need to talk about what a just society looks like—we have that on record—we need to help become one. We need to, as Epictetus said, embody our philosophy.
We need to make it real. Now. Now. Now.