The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
“Bear in mind continually how all such things as are happening now have happened before; bear in mind too that they will happen again…[remember] the whole court of Hadrian, of Antoninus, of Phillip, of Alexander, of Croesus. For these were all of the same kind as now, only with different actors.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10:27
It seems that the Trump administration has led to a marked increase in political activism. I recall going to the first Women’s March as a mere curious spectator and found myself in a crowd of people who seemed to be protesting a number of things: a loathsome and vulgar president who admitted to sexual assault (perhaps typifying a loathsome and vulgar culture), the refusal to hear Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court Justice, over eight years of government anemia and so on.
The signs were funny and I appreciated the puns and sexual innuendos, but lost in the crowd of pink hats, hemmed in by police barricades (an aura of uneasy peace that felt really festive actually) and the looming brick and marble of the DC’s buildings (it’s strange that power emanates from lifeless bricks only when such buildings are occupied), I only felt emptiness and noticed how surreal it all was. I suppose that’s what I was then, as I am now — a ghost, a reanimated corpse, at most a poltergeist.
I recall reading about an early sect of Christianity called the gnostics (they were persecuted and stamped out of existence in good Christian fashion). Central to gnostic theology is the belief that this world was created by an evil deity called the demiurge who had imprisoned human souls in the material plane, and thus spiritual salvation, true, unabridged freedom, comes from the rejection of the material world.
That is to say, the human being that lives like a ghost — indifferent to the coming and going of the world, characterized by a ceaseless changing, an instability, a poverty of purpose — is best able to steel himself against the certainty of death, which reduces men and nations alike to internment beneath the earth. “It matters not if you lived like a sage or a fool,” the thinker Ajita Kesakambali said 600 years before Jesus, as both the sage and the fool, “on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated, and after death, they are not.”
Perhaps when you find yourself in a public place with time to spare, consider how utterly contingent all things are: “Why did she sit there, instead of here? Why was the tree planted in that spot instead of a few yards over? Why did he order light roast instead of dark?” Interrogate yourself further. Only the dregs of society believe all things to be scientifically knowable. “Why are the cosmic constants this, instead of that? Why did matter survive its encounter with antimatter instead of the other way around?”
Your belief in God isn’t very helpful either: “Why did He create human beings like this instead of that? Why create in the first place if He’s supposedly self-sufficient?” Unable to comprehend the motivations that animate an omniscient mind, you are left, like all others, with the utter inexplicability of being a conscious body, an internally displaced refugee, an exile in his own homeland (separated not by kind but degree). We roam as restless ghosts, haunting the world.
Consider this next point: I recall reading a book called Our Damaged Democracy written by Joseph A. Califano Jr., the former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Johnson administration, and in the first few chapters Califano outlines how President Trump has abused his executive powers using the same exact precedents and reasoning employed by the previous Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations in order to justify their war crimes and corruption (Imagine my anger when former President Obama addressed the crowd of politicians at Representative Cummings’ funeral as men and women of integrity!). Thus the great Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the closest the world has gotten to Plato’s philosopher-king, reminds us in sadness, from two millennia before our times, that the human being, for all its technological advances and evolutionary success, has always been, and always will be, a failure.
Every generation must learn, by painful experience, those ancient lessons again and again. And thus there is no such thing as progress in any meaningful sense.