The Lesson of Maecenas
Updated: Oct 17, 2020
“[I]t seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world.”
-John Williams, Augustus, p. 123.
These words are from a fictional letter written by Maecenas, one of Octavius Caesar’s advisers, to the historian Livy, in John Williams’ National Book Award-winning 1971 novel Augustus. Maecenas is addressing a question Livy asked about Octavius having lied when he told the Roman people that Mark Antony had bested the Parthians in battle. In answering the question Maecenas paints Octavius’ deception as a justified deception, since the people, dejected by decades of civil strife, did not need to hear about another defeat, but he detects the odor of moralism in Livy’s question.
Maecenas is a cynic, and his boss, Octavius, later Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, is a master manipulator. Octavius and his men do not feel themselves to be bound by normal moral judgments and hold themselves above their fellows. For them, the end of saving Rome—while consolidating their own power, of course—justifies the means, including deception and murder. Clearly, such men are not going to be deterred from their course by any fear of being “judged.”
Yet, Maecenas does apparently care about Livy’s judgment, at least decades later when he writes to him. And note that Maecenas is being something of a moralist himself when he holds moralists in contempt—it’s just that his morals are Machiavellian ones. Perhaps Maecenas is a hypocrite, or just a man impaled upon his own contradiction.
Be that as it may, there is something to what Maecenas says in that judgment does often get in the way of knowledge, and I am going to apply Maecenas’ lesson to myself.
I am suspicious of many moral judgments, especially political ones. Ayn Rand once said that discovering evil in another person is a painful experience for a moral person. But commentators such as Ann Coulter and Bill Maher, as well as many thousands of people on Twitter, do not find it painful; they clearly relish pointing their fingers at objects they believe to be evil. Coulter imposes her outrage on the world; Maher imposes his smirk. Many religionists too seem to get a “high” from their moral wrath. Here Maecenas’ opinion is confirmed.
I am suspicious even of my own moral judgments. For example, why do I care that someone has a tattoo? It really bothers me. It seems wrong and repellent to me. Yet the worst thing I can say about it is that such a person will outgrow it or think it ugly as they get older and it blurs. Perhaps my intuition is correct that something must be amiss with someone’s self-image if they would want to put a decal on their souls. But does that make him or her a terrible person? Clearly not. Perhaps the person with the tattoo may not and never will be a great-souled person, due to his slightly warped self-image. That's pretty judgmental, but even if I'm right, so what? Almost nobody is a great-souled person although many people are still good, honorable and kind.
Why do I get worked up about this particular less-than-supreme category of human being (if that’s what they are)? Why am I obsessed with judging in this matter? I don’t do it for fun, as Bill Maher does, but there is some element of imposing myself on the world as a righteous, rational moralist. And many other followers of Ayn Rand seem to do the same, although about more serious subjects, warming themselves before the fire of their ire.
The feeling that accompanies my judgment of such people is not pain over their perceived limitations. Rather, I feel irritation and defensiveness: “Why don’t you see the world my way instead your own?!” I feel helpless because “nobody listens to me” (not that I’ve even ever tried to have a conversation about tattoos with someone who has one). And I feel alienated because “I’m alone in an irrational world.” At the very least my reaction is very much out of proportion to the provocation.
I can put these feelings in perspective by relating two foundational experiences from my childhood: Back in the early 1970s when I was about 12, my siblings regularly smoked marijuana around the house. Even at that age I thought that it was wrong. One day they persuaded my mother to try it. (My father was out of the picture by this time.) When she did, I ran from the room in despair and desolation and threw myself on a couch. Now I was completely alone in a house full of ______ people. (I didn’t have a word for it at the time.) Fortunately, my mother never developed a taste for it, and my feeling passed.
But even now, I feel an echo of that despair when I now see certain kinds of behavior, even minor behavior, that seem _______ to me. (“Irrational” is the word I settled on to fill the blank, but that word might just cover my feeling of abandonment.)
Fortunately, I’m introspective enough to see that this kind of judgementalism is not really about its object but about me. I feel myself in some sense to be the center of a universe where others’ purpose is to reassure me. This feeling is understandable in a child, but it needs to be grown out of if one is to reach maturity. It is self-deception and even unintentional arrogance to act as if one is the center of the universe. To be objective, as an adult should be, one must first be, in a non-groveling sense of the word, humble and give up the belief that the world and other people revolve around oneself. One of the best pieces of boilerplate advice one can give, advice that fits many, many situations, is “It’s not about you.”
Instead of seeking knowledge about why people get tattoos or reminding myself that in my experience having a tattoo and body piercings and blue hair actually has a strong correlation with having a benevolent and friendly manner, I get upset and judge. But I really should stop judging long enough to seek knowledge about why this correlation exists and to think about whether I could possibly stand to have a nice person with a tattoo as a friend. Perhaps when I get past my judgementalism I won’t want to get close to someone who has tattoos because of what I see as a warped self-image. Perhaps I’ll just be glad to encounter a nice person, even though I would not want any deeper contact. Perhaps it will depend on the kind of tattoo he has: skulls and Confederate flags are just never going to pass muster with me. And just maybe it will become something I don’t get bent out of shape over at all. But I’m not to the point of even considering these matters, much less addressing them, not at the level of my authentic core. And yet, these are the relevant matters to consider, if what I care about is my own well being.
I don’t want to be too hard on myself. I am not Maecenas’ useless and contemptible creature, and at least I know I need more humility, And I have reasons for being the way I am, experiences more deeply painful than the marijuana episode: In my early teens I watched two family members go from being basically sane individuals to being fanatic fundamentalist Christians. This encroachment of the irrational on my already fragile world was traumatizing. For the next 30 years I had nightmares of being chased by zombies (and this was before zombies became fun). Sometimes I thought I might succumb to the irrational myself and become a zombie. Maybe when I see something I perceive as irrational it “triggers” me. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to ask for a safe space and a cookie, and I don’t need trigger warnings before someone shows me a tattoo.)
My encounter with Ayn Rand in my later teens made my situation much better in that it showed me that a rational universe does exist. But it also made my situation worse in that Rand’s own alienation was contagious. I have discussed this tension here.
This bit of introspective reflection on my part is just the beginning of two journeys for me. The first journey is inner. Why do I judge and when is it appropriate, rather than a way of imposing my personality on the world? My intuition strongly suggests that, despite the somewhat justified resentment Maecenas feels toward those who would judge others, it is right to condemn as bad or even evil, people who willfully hurt others or who spit on life. But we would not want to extend this condemnation to people who have tattoos or who commit various peccadilloes.
The second is an outer journey toward grounding my intuition. It consists of an exploration of two related questions: What are moral judgments good for? And what standing do we have that justifies ever morally condemning another person, rather than merely observing that he is self-destructive or a danger to others? The two journeys will run in parallel for many miles, if not for the whole trip.
I have been thinking about these issues a lot while on my commute to and from work, during which I encounter a diverse assortment of humanity. Lately, I have been judging the people I encounter less and thinking about how they seek their happiness more. I see some things that I would never buy into myself as earnest efforts to achieve happiness, sometimes even beautiful efforts, even when I think they are ultimately misguided. I must say it lightens my step not to have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Atlas can shrug in more than one sense.
So apparently, even though his mission in life was to help an ambitious man achieve nearly absolute power, Maecenas has a lesson to teach in humility.
If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life