The Emperor Of Rome And The King Of Cashmere

"For the body, sensations; for the soul, desires; for the intelligence, axioms."Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 

In Umbria, in central Italy, there's a town called Solomeo. It's really more of a village than a town – just a few hundred people call it home. But Solomeo is also the home of Brunello Cucinelli – the home, I should clarify, of both the man (whose biography has attractively hardscrabble beginnings for anyone who finds the idea of a self-made country kid who's made good compelling) and the company. Cucinelli is famously not especially famous – I've read that he's much more a household name inside the fashion industry than outside it; so said Rebecca Mead, writing for the New Yorker in 2010. What he is known for – aside from his reputation as one of the great modern masters of cashmere – is his devotion to some unusual sources of spiritual guidance (at least, unusual for the mayfly attention span of the fashion world) on which he's based his business practices. In Mead's story, Cucinelli quotes Kant, and has marble busts of thinkers he admires in his home (ranging from Socrates to Obama).  All this is by way of creating a particular kind of business philosophy:

"Cucinelli has distilled an idiosyncratic business philosophy that draws on Renaissance humanism, Senecan stoicism, Benedictine rigor, and the theories of Theodore Levitt, a twentieth-century marketing scholar who argued that the purpose of companies is to keep and serve customers. 'I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals,' he told me. 'I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’m trying. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would just like it to be slightly more human.' He went on, 'I wish we could find a new name, instead of calling it "capitalism." I like the idea of an enlightened principality. In the early eighteen-hundreds, in Germany, there were princes who built schools, streets, homes. I like that. But not the ownership of the people who work for you.'”

Of all the philosophers who've influenced him, one of the most central is Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are something of an odd outpost in the philosophical literature of classical antiquity – he was not a philosopher per se, which is to say that unlike the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium (Marcus Aurelius is considered a Stoic) he wasn't involved in teaching full-time, nor in debating the merits of the various philosophical schools. Marcus Aurelius had a full-time job as Emperor of the Rome – which, even considering the fact that he was for much of his reign co-emperor with the much less highly regarded Lucius Verus, did not leave him with much spare time to put it mildly. This was not helped by the fact that Lucius Verus, who was also his adoptive brother, started off well but found his own luxurious tastes, in combination with more or less absolute power and wealth, impossible to moderate. He ended with a reputation as a rake, who preferred gambling to minding the business of running the Empire. 

Marcus Aurelius also didn't care much for the role, but in his case this expressed itself in a different way. As a follower of Stoicism, which says, to grossly oversimplify, that one must take the world as it is, not as one would wish it to be, he felt it his duty to accept the responsibilities of governance. From what we know of his life, he would have preferred very much to live a life devoted to ascetism (not for its own sake, but as a corrective to the tendency to be ruled by likes, dislikes, and passions in general, of which his brother Lucius Verus ironically turned out to be an excellent example) but that wasn't how the cookie crumbled. To remind himself that reason, not passion, should determine the temper of a moral life, he kept a private journal, which was never intended for broader publication. He had no name for these personal papers; they were simply headed, in Greek (like any cultured Roman, Marcus Aurelius was fluent in both Greek and Latin) Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν: "to himself." Today they're generally known as the Meditations.

I think it's been maybe forty years since I read the Meditations; I remember reading them when I was fifteen and we were living year-round, in what you might call reduced circumstances, in what was meant to be a vacation cabin, by the side of a large, deep, cold lake in upstate New York. It was over a long summer, during which, both bored and curious, and to distract myself, I read voraciously; everything from all the James Bond novels I could get my hands on (battered paperbacks from the public library in the nearest town) to more or less randomly chosen works of great thinkers. (I often wonder if there isn't some sort of gene for intellectual pride, which is a trait that unfortunately I don't recall ever not having. Feeling economically disenfranchised can produce a very deeply ingrained intellectual snobbism; ask the man who knows.) Anyway, in addition to the adventures of 007, I also read a bunch of other things that had nothing to do with each other, really, other than that they all had a kind of aura of intellectual respectability: I tried Kant (didn't get far) and a few philosophers who I thought were fascinatingly difficult (like Heidegger and Sartre; which absent any sort of context were of course incomprehensible, but it was still fun to carry them around). In the mix, also, were things like Jung – I remember feeling thunderstruck upon reading his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which was the first evidence I can remember running across, that the human mind might be amenable to meaningful analysis. I also read Lucretius, and, probably inevitably, the Loeb Classical Library edition, with a translation done in 1916 by C. R. Haines, of the Meditations. 

It certainly wasn't by design that I read Marcus Aurelius during aggrieved adolescence and again, today, during the disquiet of middle age; but they're times of life when his work seems especially relevant, and when the consolation of philosophy is met with more than usual gratitude. Because of when and why they were written – mostly during military campaigns, and as personal exhortations to behave rationally and view the world realistically – they're much more aphoristic than you'd expect if your idea of exemplary philosophy from antiquity is, say, the leisurely but relentless logical probing of the Socrates of Plato's Dialogues. There may be more quotable quotes per page in Marcus Aurelius than in any other philospher's writings; you start out enthusiastically underlining apropos passages and after a while give it up when you realize that if you keep doing that, you're more or less just going to have to underline the whole book. Greek is a language that manages to be both intricate and spare at the same time and in Haines' translation, which is supposed to be rather literal (and which in the Loeb Classical Library text is printed with the Greek on the left and translation on the right) both qualities come across. I don't think Marcus Aurelius especially intended to be aphoristic; being deliberately aphoristic implies a kind of ambition for both fame, and a legacy, and he was conspicuously uninterested in both. But he did end up that way – being aphoristic, I mean:

"The lover of glory conceives his own good to consist in another's actions, the lover of pleasure in his own feelings, but the possessor of understanding in his own actions."

"We need not form any opinion about the thing in question or be harassed in soul, for Nature gives the thing itself no power to compel our judgements."

"Train thyself to pay careful attention to what is being said by another and as far as possible enter into his soul."

"That which is not in the interests of the hive cannot be in the interests of the bee."

Probably it says something about why the Emperor's writings have been somewhat rediscovered, in recent years, that those quotes aren't selected from different sections of his work – they're four consecutive sentences from a page chosen at random. You get the idea. The notion of sound bites was still almost two thousand years off but you could probably have a pretty successful Twitter feed if you just started tweeting one line from the Meditations per day. Because of their personal nature – Marcus Aurelius had no particular axe to grind, and there's no sign of any larger agenda in his writings – the Meditations lend themselves to both appreciation and appropriation. I've run across conservative posts on the internet that claim his pragmatism and call for personal accountability as moral imperatives, and others which see in the same a rejection of a broader program of moral imperatives. Much to my surprise (chagrin?) I found out that he's been appropriated, along with Stoic philosophy in general, by über marketer Ryan Holiday, who spent a fairly major chunk of his career in spin-doctoring American Apparel founder Dov Charney's messy departure from his own firm. It turns out that you really can take over the Twitterverse with Stoicism; a 2016 story in the New York Times reported that, "On Twitter, he blasts out uplifting quotations from ancient philosophers like Cleanthes, Diogenes of Sinope, Plato and Zeno to his more than 80,000 followers."

The idea of using Stoicism as a model for enlightened capitalism, as Cucinelli says he wants to do, seems rife with opportunities for unintended ironies; after all, Stoicism basically enjoins us to go into the world without expectations, live rationally and justly no matter what other people are doing, and die without making a fuss about it. Marcus Aurelius himself rejected luxury out of hand as incompatible with a life lived philosophically (he went through a period, in early adolescence, of insisting on wearing a rough, Greek-style tunic and sleeping only on the ground until his mother told him to knock it off). It's hard to imagine how producing costly clothing from one of the most sensuously pleasurable materials in the world accords with anything the Stoics might have called Stoicism.

But that may be missing the point. I remember studying Ch'an Buddhism (Zen) many years ago, which has precepts you're supposed to follow – not necessarily because they're the right thing to do in some abstract sense, but because breaking them tends to create obstacles to one's practice; follow them and in general you'll find life, and other people, to be less of a pain in the ass. I happened to ask my teacher what Buddhists are supposed to do in terms of associating with people who don't follow the precepts, and he looked at me rather owlishly and then said, gently, "You know, the purpose of the precepts isn't to use them as tools to judge other people," which has stuck with me ever since. The only mention of Marcus Aurelius many people have heard of is when he's brought up by Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs, when the doctor says to Clarice Starling, "“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature?" It's certainly not in the nature of very many people to start out in the lap of relative poverty and total obscurity, as Cucinelli did, and rise to considerable wealth and relative fame, but it manifestly is in his nature and from everything I've read, he takes putting the ethical program of Stoicism into practice very seriously.

In the absolute vacuum that exists in most political and business practice today, in terms of there being any notion of either as the pursuit of a rational moral enterprise, that's extremely refreshing. I wonder, though, if such a thing has any chance of having a deeper impact than on the lives of a few hundred people in a small town in Italy – it would be nice to think so, but if the course of Roman history after the death of Marcus Aurelius tells us anything, it's that hoping for the appearance of a virtuous leader as a way of creating sustained political stability in particular, and an improvement in the human condition in general, is a fool's dream. Personal benevolence is not a substitute for a wider culture of civil discourse, and the presence of durable institutions; Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by the vicious, sadistic, megalomaniacal Commodus and Rome went to hell in a handbasket. There is pretty much no spiritual enterprise that can't be subsumed to commercialism and transformed into a kind of intellectual faddism – what the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism." Cucinelli seems to have avoided that so far; it'll be interesting to see, having reached a stage of maturation in his program of enlightened capitalism, where he, and the philosophical musings of the late reluctant Emperor, go next.



Jack Forster4 Comments