Era of the gladiator?

Moviegoers like action and Stoicism gains traction

Issue: "Sad stories, bad laws?," May 27, 2000

Stoicism vs. Scientology? The movie Gladiator sold $35 million worth of tickets its first weekend, May 5-7, four times more than any other movie. It took first place again on May 12-14, grossing $24 million, twice as much as Battlefield Earth, the film starring Scientologist John Travolta and based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The Stoicism-glorifying Gladiator's $73 million gross in its first 10 days is partly due to the blood-and-guts grossness of its action, including an opening scene vividly showing the battlefield effectiveness of the Roman military machine some 150 years after Christ. Gladiator also has a sympathetic main character, Maximus (played by Russell Crowe). Battlefield Earth, on the other hand, is ''profoundly dreadful'' (The Wall Street Journal) and "inexcusably awful" (WORLD, this issue, p. 17).

But don't completely ignore the significance of Gladiator's religious backdrop. As Christianity underlies Ben Hur, so Stoicism-the worldview central to the conclusion of Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full and full of appeal for many reporters who covered John McCain's campaign-underlies the new film. Even though Christianity had a presence in the Roman armies by 180 A.D. (early writers such as Tertullian claimed a famous Roman victory in 174 was due to Christian prayer), Christians are nowhere to be seen in Gladiator, not even as lion food.

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Instead, we are asked to cheer on Maximus, the true heir of philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, as he defeats Marcus's usurping, hedonistic, sexually licentious son, Commodus. Historians someday will find it fascinating that Bill Clinton in 1992, and his press secretary Dee Dee Myers, were telling reporters time after time that the book that had most influenced him (sometimes he said next to the Bible) was Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. (When Clinton in 1998 was revealed once again as a Commodus, the great columnist Paul Greenberg wrote, "Remember the way Dee Dee Myers once pictured Bill Clinton spending his nights reading Marcus Aurelius? Whenever I'm down, I think of that remark, and it's as good as a whole chapter of Thurber or S.J. Perelman.... Thank you, Dee Dee. Some folks are never funnier than when they're trying to be perfectly serious.")

I'm not at all suggesting that Marcus Aurelius is responsible for Bill Clinton, but he was largely responsible for Commodus, and that suggests a great limitation of Stoicism. Stoicism provides a moral code far more Christian in tone than anything hedonism can engender. Marcus Aurelius claimed in his Meditations, a book now selling well in three different editions, that he ruled for the good of his subjects, not his own, as the human representation of the universe's guiding reason. Some historians have called Marcus the greatest philosopher-king ever, and maybe he was.

But Stoicism at its core was and is empty. Maximus dies when he has gained vengeance and pushed political reform-but had he lived, what would he have lived for? Stoicism is fatalistic. Since everything purportedly happens as necessity dictates, he who is wise does not weep, as Jesus wept when a friend died. Stoics are great eliminators of the negative, and may make good governors as they war on corruption, but without much of a positive to accentuate, Stoicism lacks joy.

Christians and moral conservatives have had easy pickings in regard to recent Oval Office hedonism, but the task of cultural criticism will be harder if Stoicism surges as some expect it will. Sharon Lebell, a California author of two books about Stoicism, argues that since the '60s "as a culture, we've been allergic to virtue," but that's all over: Reverberations from the Clinton/Lewinsky moral debacle, she says, have left Americans searching for the clear moral code that Stoicism can provide.

Maybe we are in for a Stoic era, which could represent an improvement on the recent past, but Stoicism in wealthy countries tends to be followed by hedonism, as children see their parents not eating, drinking, and being merry as often as they could, for ... what purpose? Why turn aside from the gusto, if we only go around once in life? Why one moral code rather than another? Why, why, why?

Gladiator, a movie, does not have to answer those questions. In real life, Marcus Aurelius reproached Christians for obstinantly sticking to their answers, and his friend Fronto denounced them. The satirist Lucian of Samosata called Christianity ignorant fanaticism. Sticks and stones soon accompanied words, and the reign of the now-celebrated Stoic emperor became one of the worst periods of anti-Christian persecution. Stoics often became Christophobes because Christians had what they lacked, as medieval lists of the "seven cardinal virtues" showed.


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