Classics, Ethics

In Book 6 of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius makes some remarks about the character of Antoninus Pius, his predecessor as Emperor of Rome, and his adoptive father. Marcus warns himself against being seen as like Julius Caesar, and says to avoid this he must live a good and humble life and conduct his duties in such a manner, as a follower of philosophy. Such a proper lifestyle can be seen in the life of Antoninus.

Marcus describes Antoninus as having a “keenness for logical action” and an “equable temper” (54). This is to say that his adoptive father maintained a calm disposition in his duties and private life. He was not rash in his behaviour, but rather thought his actions through with great care. Here the contrast with Caesar can be seen. Whereas Caesar was power-hungry and with a great ego, Antoninus was much more reasoned in his actions and had a “lack of vainglory” (54), a formidable and unusual trait for an emperor to have.

That “keenness” for a reasoned approach is again evident as Marcus describes Antonius’ “ambition to understand affairs” (54). Again, Antoninus is not seen to be acting on his intuition but to carefully take the time to understand what is going on around him, and apply careful thought prior to action. Rather than merely rely on others for information, Antoninus wanted not only to know the truth of the matter, but to “understand”, as Marcus says. All possible choices before Antoninus were carefully and completely examined before one was chosen. “He never rushed things.” (54).

Marcus also praises Antoninus’ disposition towards other people, especially in his public life. When he was criticized publicly, he not only “tolerated” challenges to his views, but he “was glad” when presented with a more favourable view to his own position. To those who were wrong, or offered only negative commentary without foundation or suggestion for improvement, Antoninus “endured” their scorn. Neither slander nor rumour had any effect on him. He also maintained strong, “unchanging” friendships (54). That is, he did not abandon his friends, nor was he quick to end a friendship over petty matters.

In his duties of public office, Antoninus is said to have enjoyed his work to the point of being completely focused on it for long periods of time. He was “energetic” when working and continued to work until late, taking no breaks at all. His duties as a statesman were guided by justice and a goal of protecting the people, as Marcus lists among the virtues one must seek in his position.

Marcus also comments on Antonius’ spiritual lifestyle. Antoninus is described as pious, having respect for the gods and acting in accordance with their laws. Marcus also makes a curious remark, that Antoninus “was religious but free from superstition” (55). In this sense, Antoninus would have characterized the humbleness and reverence that come with piety and the proper following of a religion, along with its moral code. However, more petty or sensational aspects that often accompany religious belief, such as certain types of ritual and accompanying fears of retribution, would not have formed a part of Antoninus’ thought. Thus, he was able to obtain virtue from his beliefs without hinderance.

In all other areas of life, Antoninus demonstrated this same humility. Happy to live simply, he did not need elaborate housing or clothing. His diet was “scanty” (54), which both showed this humility and allowed him to to focus on work for longer periods of time. He also required “little in the way of . . . servants” (54). These aspects of his life again contrast him with Caesar, who was known to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and demand much of those around him.

Marcus’ description here follows one earlier in Book 1 of his text, where he tells of his adoptive father’s advice to follow such a lifestyle, and to “honor genuine philosophers” (7). Both there and in this section, what is good is to put proper philosophical and moral thought and action above one’s selfish, personal inclinations. Marcus tells himself that being Antoninus’ “disciple” (55) in all of these traits will leave him with a clear conscious at death, knowing that he had lived a good life.

Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983.


In Book I, Chapter VII of his Confessions[1], Augustine makes some comments on the innocence of infants. I’m not a huge fan of religious philosophy, but I found this passage kind of amusing.

Augustine says that the actions of infants are “reprehensible” (8), the way they cry loudly for nourishment, constantly demanding the attention of their mother. Infants become intolerant of others, their parents and strangers, who do not obey them, often lashing out “with sheer will to hurt” (9). They also complain and demand things that aren’t even in their best interests. Augustine remarks that such actions would not be tolerated of an adult; in fact, an adult behaving in such an infantile manner would rightfully be the subject of scorn and ridicule. One cannot blame infants for the way they cry, of course, since they do not know what is wrong with their behaviour. However, Augustine says that such behaviour is clearly wrong, for as the child grows up there is an attempt to put an end to such behaviour, creating a more calm and polite child. Were it correct, it would be allowed to continue as the child matures.

Because of this clear wrongdoing on the part of infants, Augustine wonders why it is that infants are thought to have innocence. He concludes that it must not be anything having to do with the mind of an infant, since as has been shown, infants are not in possession of finer human qualities like humility and patience. Quite to the contrary, infants are selfish, impatient and impolite, and thus can rightfully be labelled as sinners. Instead, Augustine says, they must be innocent only in the sense that they are helpless.

He goes on to provide further evidence that the state of the infant’s mind is sinful, by means of demonstrating infant jealousy. He says that he has seen a case of a baby who was watching another feeding at a breast. The child who was watching was “livid with anger” (9), despite being too young to even speak. This jealousy shows an unwillingness to share readily-available milk with a child that will not survive without it, though the child likely doesn’t understand this. Still, this shows that infants can be guilty of jealousy and of gluttony. For Augustine, referring to infants as innocence seems to refer to “an odd kind of innocence” (9).

On this account, infants get away with their behaviour and allowed to act in the manner they do not because their behaviour is correct or sinless, but because it “will pass with the years” (9). Adults only allow infants their sins because they are short-lived.

So how about that? Normally we think that infants are innocent because of their ignorance — though ignorance doesn’t count as a defense later in life.

It turns out, they’re just awful.


[1] Augustine. Confessions. Second Edition. Trans. F. J. Sheed. Ed. Michael P. Foley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006. pp. 8-9. Print.

Ethics, Metaphysics

Why you wouldn’t miss free will

Determinism is the view that all things in the physical world are determined by previous physical causes, including human action. Two asteroids collide in space because they’re on a path that brings them together. Water falls off a cliff because gravity pulls it down. And you are reading this because some physical process in your brain has led you to browse the Internet and stumble across this article.

Determinism is the result of applying our scientific notion of causality to ourselves, which we intuitively believe to be somehow immune to the tides of causality. But determinism says that we’re a part of the system.

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Human Rights

I have rights.  You have rights.  She has rights.  He has rights.  They have rights.  We all have rights!  Hooray for rights.

So we have the right to live, to be free, to be treated equally, and to say and do whatever we want so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.  Awesome.  What a wonderful, modern world we live in where we’ve come to realize our inalienable human rights.

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I recently wrote a paper for a Moral Reasoning course in defense of human cloning. The concept of human cloning seems a bit frightening to me, but I don’t think that’s altogether rational.

Let me first define human cloning by the current hypothetical techniques for doing so.  Human cloning is the creation of a human being, or human tissues, using 100% of the nuclear genetic material from a donor.  You have to know a little bit about biology to fully understand this, but essentially the process means that instead of having two parents — each donating 50% of their genetic code, randomly — only one parent donates complete DNA, making the child, or clone, a genetic duplicate of the parent.

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