Marcus Aurelius and the Nature of God

My friend posted to his Facebook wall an example of odd things agnostics say:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” ― Marcus Aurelius

I say that this is odd because it has a number of flawed suppositions that I would think would be self-evident.

“Good life”, “virtue”, “noble” and “just” are words that have variable definitions, depending on your culture.  For instance, in colonial India, the locals believed it was just, virtuous and noble to throw a living widow upon the burning funeral pyre of her dead husband.  The English governor of that province thought it just, virtuous and noble to erect a gallows next to that pyre and warn the village that a noose awaited those who would throw a living human onto a burning pyre.

If there is a god that takes note of man and has an opinion of what is right and wrong and has both the will and power to punish the wicked and reward the just, then what we think is wicked and just would not matter.

The values expressed by the widow and the funeral pyre and the gallows are both informed by an ideation of god that are in obvious conflict.  Perhaps neither the god of the English governor nor the god of the Indian villagers exist, but they cannot both exist with equal power and authority over us.  Aurelius avoids the question of who god might be if god exists and what the demands of that god might be.  Morality becomes “things I like” without ever considering that maybe the things he likes are objectively immoral in the eyes of some god.

Aurelius was an emperor in the early years of the ascendancy of Christianity, about 90 years after Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  Even though Jerusalem had been sacked, the Jews were being dispersed and the apostles were long dead (only John dying of natural causes) his empire was still abuzz with the work and philosophy of Christians who believed in a God who had an opinion about right and wrong, with the power and will to do something about it.  To my ear this sounds like something Aurelius might have said in response to one of the increasing number of nobles who were Christians, and recorded by a fellow skeptic.

As a chunk of philosophy, I think Aurelius’s formulation is meaningless.  It is not a statement about either the existence of or nature of god.  It is a statement about Aurelius being his own god and not being interested in any competition.

4 thoughts on “Marcus Aurelius and the Nature of God

  1. How does the eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil play into the believer’s perception of whether people, Aurelius included, are able to divine good from evil?

  2. “A personalized God can be a mere idol carved in our own image- a projection of our limited needs, fears, and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. When he seems to fail to prevent a catastrophe or seems even to desire a tragedy, he can seem callous and cruel. A facile belief that a disaster is the will of God can make us accept things that are fundamentally unacceptable. . . .A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, ‘he’ can encourage us to remain complacently within them; ‘he’ can make us cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial as ‘he’ seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize all advanced religions, ‘he’ can encourage us to judge, condemn, and marginalize.” ― Karen Armstrong

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