The Consolation – with Socrates, Marcus Aurelius and The Psalmist

Dedicated to my friend and colleague – Dr Zainab Ahmed, who has interest in the Stoics.

 

Faculty of Medicine – Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Nigeria.

 

Many persons in positions of authority, and indeed even among followers are of the opinion that might is right. Some never take a minute to reflect on the suffering in the world. They are trapped in their ignorance of justice; as the world seems to thrive on injustice, with a lot of victim blaming. Despite extolling virtues like wisdom, patience, compassion, contentment and honor; those who exhibit the opposite seem to be doing better at individual, corporate and state levels. This can lead to a feeling of disorientation and despair, with temptations to join the bandwagon; or simply accept injustice with resignation, saying the world has always been like this and there is little or nothing we can do about it. This debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus as recorded by Plato in The Republic is insightful:

Thrasymachus:

…“Listen, then, he said; I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.”

…“And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.”

…“But to be perfectly accurate, since you are such a lover of accuracy, we should say that the ruler, in so far as he is a ruler, is unerring, and, being unerring, always commands that which is for his own interest; and the subject is required to execute his commands; and therefore, as I said at first and now repeat, justice is the interest of the stronger.”

Socrates

…“Then, I continued, no physician, in so far as he is a physician, considers his own good in what he prescribes, but the good of his patient; for the true physician is also a ruler having the human body as a subject, and is not a mere money-maker; that has been admitted?

…“Then, I said, Thrasymachus, there is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to his art; to that he looks, and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.

Thrasymachus:

… “Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is most apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable

…“For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.

Socrates

For my own part I openly declare that I am not convinced, and that I do not believe injustice to be more gainful than justice, even if uncontrolled and allowed to have free play. For, granting that there may be an unjust man who is able to commit injustice either by fraud or force, still this does not convince me of the superior advantage of injustice, and there may be others who are in the same predicament with myself. Perhaps we may be wrong; if so, you in your wisdom should convince us that we are mistaken in preferring justice to injustice.

…“Then now, Thrasymachus, there is no longer any doubt that neither arts nor governments provide for their own interests; but, as we were before saying, they rule and provide for the interests of their subjects who are the weaker and not the stronger—to their good they attend and not to the good of the superior. And this is the reason, my dear Thrasymachus, why, as I was just now saying, no one is willing to govern; because no one likes to take in hand the reformation of evils which are not his concern without remuneration. For, in the execution of his work, and in giving his orders to another, the true artist does not regard his own interest, but always that of his subjects; and therefore in order that rulers may be willing to rule, they must be paid in one of three modes of payment, money, or honour, or a penalty for refusing.

…“And this, as I imagine, is the reason why the forwardness to take office, instead of waiting to be compelled, has been deemed dishonourable. Now the worst part of the punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself. And the fear of this, as I conceive, induces the good to take office, not because they would, but because they cannot help it — not under the idea that they are going to have any benefit or enjoyment themselves, but as a necessity, and because they are not able to commit the task of ruling to any one who is better than themselves, or indeed as good. For there is reason to think that if a city were composed entirely of good men, then to avoid office would be as much an object of contention as to obtain office is at present; then we should have plain proof that the true ruler is not meant by nature to regard his own interest, but that of his subjects; and every one who knew this would choose rather to receive a benefit from another than to have the trouble of conferring one. So far am I from agreeing with Thrasymachus that justice is the interest of the stronger.

Excerpts From: Plato. “The Republic.” iBooks.

Socrates used many analogies to support his argument for the supremacy of justice which he proves to be virtue and wisdom; however I want to focus on the argument presented by Thrasymachus. He based his argument on his observations, while Socrates was describing the ideal, because he had understanding. Without understanding we may argue as Thrasymachus did, and even if we don’t agree with him that justice is better than injustice, we may be inclined to think the unjust in society today are happier than the just (judging by their wealth and lifestyle); or that those who are preach justice simply do so because they are afraid of becoming victims of injustice, but will commit injustice if given the opportunity.

David the Psalmist. Stone carving in the old Russian style

 

The Psalmist captured this beautifully:

…”For I was envious of the boastful,

When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For there are no pangs in their death,

But their strength is firm.

They are not in trouble as other men,

Nor are they plagued like other men.

Therefore pride serves as their necklace;

Violence covers them like a garment.

Their eyes bulge with abundance;

They have more than the heart could wish.

They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;

They speak loftily.”

Excerpt from The Holy Bible, Psalms 73:2-8. New King James Version

With this looming disorientation, contemplating on the recommendations of Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic Philosopher and  Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, may be helpful:

…“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity

… “This then remains: Remember to retire into this little territory of thy own, and above all do not distract or strain thyself, but be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two. One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. The other is that all these things which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.”

…“ If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which thou utterest, thou wilt live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.

…“As physicians have always their instruments and knives ready for cases which suddenly require their skill, so do thou have principles ready for the understanding of things divine and human, and for doing everything, even the smallest, with a recollection of the bond which unites the divine and human to one another. For neither wilt thou do anything well which pertains to man without at the same time having a reference to things divine; nor the contrary.

…“Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.”

Excerpts From: Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius. “Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius.” iBooks.

As a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius obviously had the opportunity to loot the treasury and do as he pleased; rather he advocated for justice, self examination and calm in the midst of injustice. He tells us to pay attention to things divine, and focus on noble deeds without any fear, and to do so with a sense of urgency as no one would live forever. Marcus’ recommendations are worthy of emulation, and can help to attain the kind of understanding Socrates had, to hold on to the argument for justice and be consoled.

Marble bust of the roman emperor Marcus Aurelius

Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher

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