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    Marcus Aurelius, Henryk Elzenberg, and Zbigniew Herbert: An Encounter

Piotr Wilczek


In April 2009 two European educational institutions, College of Europe (Brugge/Natolin) and Collegium Artes Liberales (University of Warsaw), celebrated the birthday of Marcus Aurelius, a key author to those seriously engaged in the study of humanities and social sciences. Both institutions focus on educating society’s leaders. During the conference held in the Natolin-Warsaw campus of the College of Europe, many significant things were said about the political ideas of Marcus Aurelius, his attitude toward religion, and his relations with Christianity, as well as about the idea of stoicism, so important for this thinker and politician. The conference discussions confirmed that Marcus Aurelius is a philosopher who continues to be relevant, and that the ideas of the Stoics continue to be relevant in our discussions of the fundamental issues of human existence: good and evil, behavior, and moral attitudes.

Professor Maria Dzielska, a historian from Jagiellonian University, spoke about the environment in which Marcus Aurelius lived and the dangers of discussing his thought without connecting it to his political activity. His idea of the state was not cosmopolitan or abstract; he thought about the real state-the Roman empire. Professor John Rist of the University of Toronto presented many aspects of the eclectic stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, his attitude toward Christianity, and difficulties arising from the Christian reception of his thought. Rist mentioned Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter as writers whose way of thinking resonates with Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy. Professor Valery Laurand of the University of Bordeaux presented a detailed and subtle analysis of fragments of the Meditations; he discussed them as a philosophical text about human nature and human behavior. Such discussions are rare and precious because they require the philosophical erudition that Professor Laurand amply demonstrated. The paper by Professor Giuseppe Giliberti of the University of Urbino addressed the idea of empire in Marcus Aurelius’s thought, as well as the practice of law in his time. It was interesting to hear how this famous philosopher tried to be an efficient and enlightened absolute monarch, and learn about the inconsistencies and tensions betwen his philosophy and his role as a political actor. Finally, Professor Marcia Colish of Yale University gave an extensive and profound lecture on the moral and philosophical issues discussed by the Stoic philosophers.

The above survey of conference papers is meant to give evidence that Marcus Aurelius’s political activities and philosophical writings went hand in hand, and that not only poets but also academic scholars view them in this way. Marcus Aurelius combined governance with a consistent and rigorous self-questioning about the nature of power and about the relationship between self and governance. He inspired others to reflect on the connection between politics and morality.


Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was one of those for whom Marcus Aurelius provided important inspiration. I should add that for my generation, Herbert was a much more significant personality than Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska, the two Polish Nobel Prize winners.

In his poetic language based on the tradition of neoclassicism, Herbert expressed the moral and philosophical situation of a nation oppressed by a totalitarian regime. In Stalinist times Herbert-unlike most writers of that time, including Miłosz and Szymborska-adamantly rejected contact with the regime, obstinately refusing the ample privileges given to writers willing to engage in the politics and propaganda that supported the communist system. He lived a simple life and even suffered from extreme poverty.

As a student of philosophy in Toruń, Herbert attended the lectures of Henryk Elzenberg, a prominent university teacher of philosophy. In the worst Stalinist period Elzenberg lost his position at the university and was forbidden to teach students. Thus these two outstanding Polish intellectuals were obliged to live on the margins of society at a time when many intellectuals in the West praised the communist regime and its generosity toward writers and artists. Zbigniew Herbert was a freelance poet with no permanent job who lived in the suburbs of Warsaw, and Henryk Elzenberg was a professor who was forbidden to teach at the University of Toruń, and instead conducted illegal seminars at his home. In December 1951 Herbert sent a letter to Elzenberg, and in the letter he included the poem “To Marcus Aurelius.” In Chord of Light, his first volume of poetry (1956), the poem was significantly dedicated “For Professor Henryk Elzenberg.”

Why this dedication? In 1920 Elzenberg, a specialist in Greek and Roman philosophy, published a book on Marcus Aurelius. A poem on that thinker could therefore be interpreted as expressing thoughts on Henryk Elzenberg as well, as a protest against the situation in Soviet-occupied Poland where the best had to live on the periphery and the worst occupied the center. Henryk Elzenberg was punished by communists for teaching philosophy according to what they condemned as “notorious idealism”; he was the modern Marcus Aurelius who helplessly observed the collapse of his world, “listening to the barbarian cry of fear his Latin cannot understand.” The poem describes a confrontation of the civilized world and the barbarians. Elzenberg, too, helplessly observed barbarians who spoke an alien language he could not understand or accept.

The unrelenting stream

of elements will drown your prose

says the poet, speaking to Marcus Aurelius,

until the world’s four walls go down.

As for us?-to tremble in the air

blow in the ashes

. . . .

gnaw our fingers seek vain words

drag off the fallen shades behind us.

The poem is an expression of allegiance to the roots of Western civilization, and also an example of fascination with Marcus Aurelius. The remark about Marcus Aurelius’s “Latin” as opposed to the language of the barbarians, mentioned as a mistake by many scholars who have analyzed the poem (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was written in Greek), is not necessarily a mistake. “Latin” can be understood here as a symbol of Western civilization, the civilization whose ideals were attacked by the barbarians in the emperor’s times and by communists in the time of Herbert and Elzenberg. There are other such apparent mistakes in the poem. One of the participants in the conference noted that when we read it, we recall not the historical events of the second century AD, but rather the beginning of Ridley Scott’s movie The Gladiator: the chaos of the Empire, the barbarian invasion from the north, the old emperor tired of the difficulties of war, his evil son Commodus who would soon be involved in an assassination plot.

History books tell us a different story: Marcus Aurelius was an active ruler. His equestrian statue gracing the Capitoline Hill in Rome represents him well. He was a triumphant victor; we can imagine a barbarian lying under his horse. He was the first of all Roman emperors to actively defend his empire, rather than simply being a philosopher passively seated on the throne. Herbert’s poem does not deal with Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher and emperor, nor is it a poem about the historical peregrinations of the concept of Stoicism. Instead, it is an allegory of Polish history, of Soviet occupation, and of the influence of both on people like Henryk Elzenberg and Zbigniew Herbert. To those who opposed the “barbarian” system, Marcus Aurelius was first of all the author of Meditations, a book that taught them how to face life; he was also a ruler who defended the empire against the barbarians. Thus to some extent the poem is also a polemic with the traditional notion of Stoicism as a passive philosophical attitude.

Peter Dale Scott, who translated a number of Herbert’s poems into English, said in an interview that “To Marcus Aurelius” was the most difficult of Herbert’s poems to translate: “It was impossible to recreate the tensions of the Polish political situation, which surrounded each lyric with suggestive expanses of the unspoken.” This poem can be read outside the Polish political context, but in this case its deepest meaning is likely to be lost.

In contrast, Professor Piotr Urbański of the University of Szczecin recently argued that the poem was a product of a casual reading of the Meditations and provided evidence that Stoicism was not important for an educated reader in the 1950s (Pogranicza, no. 3, 2008). It seems to me that he misinterpreted Herbert’s poem. Greek and Roman culture, philosophy, and mythology played a substantial role in Herbert’s poetry, but he drew on them not as a historian or a philosopher. Rather, he drew on these resources in his determined effort to proclaim Polish dignity and oppose the communist regime. That regime devastated Poland over the forty-five years of Soviet occupation. In the 1990s it remained part of the mentality of many people, most especially the prominent postcommunist intellectuals still functioning in Poland: Herbert is on record stating that fact. In his opinion, communism poisoned the minds of many, including poets and intellectuals who profited from the system and who never publicly explained the nature of their involvement. For Herbert, this failure to explain and apologize was impossible to justify; ultimately, it was evil. It has to be said that such uncompromising attitude was an exception in Polish intellectual circles after 1989; the majority of writers and intellectuals preferred to ease into the new system and keep silent about their active support for the old and criminal one. In contrast to this prevailing attitude, Zbigniew Herbert’s views were consistent, from the poem “To Marcus Aurelius” published in his first volume of poetry, to his public statements in the 1990s when he was accused of mental illness by the “politically correct” intellectuals who would rather forget their actions under communism. Herbert’s poem is a spirited defense of a free search for knowledge; here and elsewhere he speaks against the invading barbarians who threaten to pervert philosophy and knowledge. “To Marcus Aurelius” is a deeply humanistic poem, and its significance and context deserve continuing reflection.  Δ

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