by Kirk Zaro, member of Petaluma-Hamilton #180
During the years between 175 AD and 180 AD the emperor Marcus Aurelius, an adopted relation into the great Nerva-Antonine family of Rome, penned one of the lasting literary monuments to man’s innate preoccupation with self-reflection.
His work would eventually come to be known and erroneously titled, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by second century historians and later Medieval cleric-scholars who rediscovered his work and who made it known to a wider world. His work is not “meditative”. Neither was it meant for any eyes save the writer. In fact, the original Greek copy used for the first bound, non-papyrus translation was entitled, Eis Beuton (To Himself). There is good reason for historians to believe this was the actual title as it so clearly cleaves to the mark of what these writings seem to be.
In truth, it was a soldier’s simple field journal written by a man often set alone by circumstance, divided by rank and the myriad of cares felt by an administrator responsible to his people. His writings spanned roughly between the subjugation of the last Germanic tribes in Rome’s northern frontier above Cisalpine Gaul and the foundation of a new set of law codes designed to make room for those same Germanic tribesmen and their families now pacified and brought for the first time within the cover of Rome’s protective cloak.
In the work, Marcus discussed uncollectable debts he owed to people in his life whom he loved. In places the pep talks he gave himself, a lonely leader ruling a far-flung and sometimes unruly empire comprised of different and often disparate peoples of various ethnicities and social drives, serve even today to inform, instruct, and counsel nearly all those in positions of leadership, social value, or who, while conducting their own daily offices of necessity, are forced to deal with the personalities of others.
By all accounts Marcus was a quiet man who preferred to hear the unvarnished truth of a matter set before him to the senseless flattery and political positioning of maneuvering subordinates eager to curry favor. He was a common man, disdainful of the trappings of his office. He believed in Rome. He believed in the commonality that all people had and still have. This commonality is echoed in his first section of Book II:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like to the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
Three of the most important tenants of Freemasonry are brotherly love, relief, and truth. Of these three tenants, it is brotherly love which seems to remain the most salient and yet also the most malleable virtue of the three. For without its flexibility and psychological utilitarianism, brotherly love cannot serve its true purpose as the sole conduit for the authentic flowering of relief. Relief, however is not enough to allow for accessing the Divine. Relief is in and of itself is like a looking at a pretty, but ultimately one-dimensional houseplant, if one is acting in a vacuum without the counterpart of relief’s ultimate bloom, truth; the truth of the freeing clarity of friendship, the truth of being able to recognize self in another’s motivations, and ultimately the truth of psycho-socially belonging without fear and without prejudice to our fellow man.
The multidimensionality of this triad of brotherly love, relief, and truth is central to freeing us as Freemasons from the obstructive nature of separateness and isolation and makes the beauty of accessing the Divine a tangible reality and a palpable good in the lives of people with whom we share both natural differences and with whom we share common cause. Just because someone’s different doesn’t mean we cannot display brotherly love. No matter if they are meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, or surly. If we operate in emotional vacuums without brotherly love, our obstructive natures (as Marcus Aurelius would no doubt opine) all become like millstones around the tired necks of our souls, dragging us down to discord, disunity, and the failure of us to recognize the innate belonging of others who form our larger social groups. Thus, in alienation and discordant chaos we lose our spiritual “sight”, failing to see how others “look” similar to us. In essence we fail to see others as having a share with us in the Divine. We give way to the baser angels of our natures and allow for the weeds of racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and perceptions of religious or social superiority to dominate what would have eventually flowered within the good and fertile soil of our souls.
There is true and singular beauty in the Divine. When we look at historical and literary examples of brotherly love, we may recognize that humanity has always seen the need to associate with others, sharing its ideals of unification and the idea that despite a world brimming with disunity and discord, true beauty (or connection with the Divine) is still possible.
In Plato’s The Symposium, a didactic philosophical treatise couched in the façade of a nighttime “beer bong” party in old Athens, Sophocles, the main character of Plato’s work, retells an association he once had with a woman named Domitia, who was “an instructress in the arts of love.” Domitia, Sophocles recounted, said that the true order of love was an upward “movement” whereupon recognition of “beauty” as a sort of disembodied construct naturally led the viewer (or experiencer) from beautiful forms to beautiful practices and from beautiful practices to beautiful ideologies, theoretically allowing even the most base among us to partake in the equalizing nature of “absolute beauty” (again, the Divine).
It is as if Domitia’s “upward movement” is the natural progression of the soul once the catalyst of beauty is introduced as a spiritual modifier.
In later centuries, the writing of Scottish philosopher John Locke would come to echo this sentiment in Book II of his essay, “Concerning Human Understanding”. In it, Locke unintentionally paraphrases Sophocles’ recollections of Domitia and writes that a man, “…hungers or thirsts after righteousness, till he feels an uneasiness in the want of it, his will will not be determined to any action in pursuit of this confessed greater good; but any other uneasiness he feels in himself shall take place, and carry his will to other actions.”
It is the “uneasiness” of Locke’s man who “thirsts after righteousness” and Domitia’s upward movement, leading her experiencer “from beautiful practices to beautiful ideologies”, which is the essence of divine connection and the very heartwood of the tree of brotherly love. Is love not divine? Is thirst for righteousness not directly attributable to the machinations of the Divine?
The practice of brotherly love necessitates people sharing in the “sense” of immortality and the connectedness of the Divine. Plato again writes of Socrates (who again quotes Domitia), “There is something divine about the whole matter; in procreation and bringing to birth the mortal creature is endowed with a touch of immortality.”
This immortality of which Domitia speaks is a branch of the same family tree as brotherly love. We cannot feel as if we have attained closeness to the Divine without the concomitant aspect of witnessing the sense of belonging to us of a brother who, through difference of circumstance, was previously thought of as “different”, as “other”, or as “less”. The great Virginia statesman and father of the American ethos, Thomas Jefferson, said in a letter to Roger Weightman, first mayor of the District of Colombia (himself a Grand Master Mason), that selected populations of mankind, “has not been born with the saddles on their backs, or a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
Like individual notes within a musical composition, these differences become unifying cadences in the great song of the soul as the practical application of brotherly love is employed. Many become one. All separate become equal at the foot of the Divine, for who stands in opposition to his brother stands in opposition to himself. As Marcus Aurelius said, a brother who is different from him, “has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.” The denial of brotherly love toward our earthly brothers is an obstruction and is tantamount to living empty lives where joy, the most lovely flower on the tree of the Divine, is sequestered within the walls of self and forbidden to cross the borders of our hearts and become actualized.
Therefore, these times in which we now live demand from us and call to us to secure common ground once again, not just with fellow Freemasons, but with others in the wider world whom we may perceive as different, as other, or possibly, as less. After all, we were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like to the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
- Marcus Aurelius, and Gregory Hays. “Book 2 On the River Gran, Among the Quadi.” Meditations. (New York: Modern Library, 2002. N. pag.). Print.
- Thomas Jefferson (Author) Writings, Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, “Last Letter; Apotheosis of Liberty: To Roger C. Weightman”: Books. N.p., n.d.
- John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London, Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 2. 03/04/2017. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/762
- “Socrates and Domitia.” Plato: The Symposium. (Middlesex: Penguin Classics, n.d., 80-87). Print.