A long time ago a man wrote: “Speak both to the powerful and to every man—whoever he may be—appropriately and without affectation. Use plain language. Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance, and be ready to let it go. Order your life well in every single act. Behave justly to those who are around you. Be vigilant over your thoughts, so that nothing should steal into them without being well examined.”
He wrote: “Every moment, focus steadily on doing the task at hand with perfect and simple dignity, and with feelings of affection and freedom and justice. Put away hypocrisy. Put away self-love and discontent with your portion in life. We were made for cooperation, and to act against one another is contrary to nature. Accept correction gladly. Teach without anger. Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, a friend of justice, kind, affectionate, and strenuous in all proper acts.”
Finally, he wrote: “Take care never to feel toward those who are inhuman, the way they feel toward other men.”
The dictionary in my home defines wisdom as “the understanding and pursuit of what is true, right or lasting.” If that’s so, and I believe it is, the words from the diary we just heard are wisdom. They offer us a map to living a worthy life—a life of interior peace flowing out of moral character and purpose. They’re as valuable today as when they were first written.
But what’s interesting is this: They were written more than 1,800 years ago. The author probably didn’t intend to see his work published. He wrote mainly for himself—to strengthen his convictions. And many of his thoughts were written at war, at night, in winter, from the inside of a Roman military tent, on the German frontier. In his nineteen years as emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus had no long period of peace. He spent much of his life away from Rome with the army. He fought one brutal war after another against invaders, and he did it to defend a society that had already lost the values he held dear.
So why do we remember him? We remember him because nothing is more compelling than a good man in an evil time. Marcus Aurelius held absolute power in a corrupt age. Yet despite that, he chose to seek what is true and right and lasting; and he disciplined his own life accordingly. In the context of his time, he was a just man and a moral ruler. He achieved that dignity of character by giving his heart first to the pursuit of wisdom, and only then to Rome. He had a brilliant mind, but he had no love of intellect purely for the sake of intellect. Rather, he had a special disgust for intelligence without moral purpose.
That’s why he’s important for us today. He pursued wisdom above everything else. Those three qualities that Marcus Aurelius sought in his own life—the true, the right, and the lasting—are the pillars of the world. They’re the tripod that supports a meaningful life. Whether rich or poor, emperor or peasant, Christian or pagan, all people in every age have a hunger for meaning in their lives.
That hunger is a clue to the nature of our humanity. It’s a sign that points to what Jesus said to Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Power, sex, knowledge, money, possessions—none of these things finally lasts. They’re narcotics. They can dull our inner hunger, but they can’t make it go away. Wisdom consists in turning our hearts to the search for what does satisfy that hunger, and then pursuing it with all our strength.
That brings to the three simple points to put before you today.
Here’s the first point: The more secular we become, the less we care about the true, the right and the lasting. And here’s the reason: We don’t really believe they exist. Or we simply don’t care.
The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek words philia, which means love, and sophia, which means wisdom. In an earlier age, philosophy fed man’s nobility; it involved the love and pursuit of wisdom. Academic philosophy today is a shadow of its historic dignity in the Western tradition. It’s an ailing discipline because it has collapsed into either postmodern skepticism or materialistic scientism, and neither has any place for wisdom or love. The postmodern cynic rejects the search for higher, permanent truths about the human person as a kind of ideological power grab. And the materialist philosopher rejects the search because it demands going beyond what we can confirm in a laboratory.
As a result, our idea of “wisdom” has shriveled down to mean, at best, a kind of common sense based on experience; and at worst, a cheap and clever irony.
Real wisdom grows from the moral memory of a culture. The more we debunk and reinterpret the past according to some political or social scientific agenda, the less coherent our memory becomes, and the more irrelevant wisdom like the Bible seems. This results in a kind of rootlessness, a self-imposed amnesia, and it undermines our whole moral vocabulary. It also leads us to see and judge everything in terms of its utility, right here and right now. What’s useful and productive is judged good. What isn’t is judged bad.
Here’s the second point: Just as we transferred our belief in God to a belief in ourselves beginning with the Enlightenment, now we’re shifting a belief in ourselves to a belief in our tools under the cover of a scientific and technological revolution. To put it another way: Losing faith in God inevitably results in losing faith in man, because only God can guarantee man’s unique dignity. Without God, we turn ourselves into the objects and the victims of our own knowledge. And we’re now doing that at a moment when our tools have more destructive power than at any time in history.
This is why the witness of the Church is so important. The Church, as G.K. Chesterton once said, is the only thing that saves a man from the “degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” What he meant is this: People who conform their hearts to the ideas of the age disappear right along with the age. Nothing is older than yesterday’s “new thing” and the people who worshiped it. We were created to live in the present, worship God in the present, serve the poor in the present, and support each other in the present—but to ready ourselves for eternity.
That brings me to the third point: I believe that it’s exactly this vocation—this eternal perspective—that makes the Church the most reliable bearer of wisdom for the contemporary world. No one knows the human soul and the human experience as well as the Church. No one believes in the human enterprise more deeply than the Church. And that creates an interesting irony: In his lifetime, Marcus Aurelius bitterly persecuted Christians for being superstitious, obstinate, and seditious. But he did so not out of personal cruelty, or corruption, or arrogance, but out of piety for the old gods. If he were alive today, and alive with the same hunger for wisdom, he might see the world very differently. It might even be tempting to imagine him as a Christian—because what he sought from life in his own time, only the Church really offers today.
If interested to read the elaboration of these three points, go here. It is worth reading!
In his great work, The City of God, St. Augustine created a portrait of the world divided into two cities—the City of God with its eyes set on heaven, and the City of Man rooted in pride and sin. Life consists in choosing one or the other. It’s a choice we can’t avoid. And each of us faces that choice right here, today, now. The wisdom which the Church offers the world is for the humble, not the proud, and it’s the only wisdom that counts: the path to salvation.
But this salvation is not a philosophy or an ideology, an idea or ideals. No one can “love” an idea, and yet the heart of real wisdom is the ability and willingness to love. Augustine says that all of the wisdom in the Old Testament literally takes on flesh in the New Testament. The reason is simple. Jesus Christ is the Word of God—the Wisdom of God—God as love incarnate. Jesus himself says, “I am the bread of life.” He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
No one can love an idea. But we can love and be loved by Jesus Christ. We can meet and be met by God’s Son. The true, the right, and the lasting meet in a Man. Our task is to follow him, no matter what the cost, and to lead others to do the same.