Truth of the Emperor

I was in conversation with a internet friend we shall call X about a situation he found himself in. In this situation, he was upset it was revealed that someone he was talking to and planning to have a one night stand with was using him. The woman is recently post-op and was using him as a sexual guinea pig. His reaction to this was to confront her and cease contact but he was accused of being transphobic

I tried to present a very reasoned argument about this. Manipulation to acquire sex is immoral, under any circumstances, this was agreed. The topic of consent was also brought up, in particular the question: how can someone consent to something they without fully know what they are consenting to? Another fair point. The corner that I defended was that this is not representative of trans people or the attitude of all trans people to manipulate straight men into sex as some agenda. This was in my eyes, an example of someone reacting poorly to rejection and assuming the worst as a reason – that reason being transphobia not manipulation or immorality. I don’t believe X is a transphobe, I think he’s a product of his culture and experience. In my experience of knowing trans people, on the whole, people care more about being able to live as they are in safety not if someone wants to have sex with them or not.

For me, the conversation is quite arbitrary: meat and mucus is just the same with different presentation. Neither argument matters to me as an individual other than the value I place in the feelings of others but of course this is a privileged position. While I’m not apathetic at all, I’m not exactly part of the conversation unless I involve myself and even then I fear missing nuance.

Within this debate, X made a comment after I offered some words of Marcus Aurelius:

“Also Marcus Aurelius what quite a butcher, you know that?

I’ve done some further reading on this. Within the debate that spanned about two hours this is what stuck with me more than anything. This seems stupid to me, as surely the present moment and issues at hand are more important that the character of a man who died some 1800+ years ago. Indeed he was a bit of a butcher. Marcus Aurelius engaged in several wars, notably an uprising in Syria, invasion of barbarian lands and occupation of modern day Armenia. Christians suffered great persecution in his reign but these accounts are conflicted. So he was by most accounts a great man. A good man by way of virtue and philosophy and legacy; a bad man by way of expansionism, slaughter and despotism. What would we expect though from the Emperor of Rome? He was the last of the “Five Good” and his death signalled the end of the glorious Pax Romana and decline of the civilisation. Yet for all of his criticisms of the indulgence and abuse of the class of slave boys, did he enable the status quo or did he, for the greater good, act in his power to change this? I don’t know enough to say yes or no to that but considering how the Roman Empire limped on for a few hundred more years after his death aged 58, the answer is likely a no. This is where we can apply the Epicuren Paradox to the Stoic Emperor:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able or willing? Then why call him God?” – Epicurus.

Of course, in this I’m using Marcus Aurelius as a god-like figure: supreme leader of the Roman Empire, stoic philosopher and disciple of the greater good. In his world, he has the power of a god-like figure with almost omnipotent power over his subjects and a directive of benevolence. The people loved him enough. But did they love him because he enabled them or because he was inherently good?

This is a case for me, of separating art from aspects of the artist. I cannot truly judge him as I am not an expert of Roman culture nor am I Roman nor am I an Emperor of a continent spanning empire. Maybe the truth is less black and white: he was a good man who did what he could. Perhaps that’s the truth.

His words have inspired me and helped me become a better person for the community, a stoic. Without his words that I’ve studied for at least 4 hours of my day every day for the past few weeks (not a lot in the grand scheme of things), I think my debate with X would have been a lot more hostile. Perhaps I would have been angry by his perspective and semantics, offended by his insinuations of trans people, and discarded the friendship entirely rather than hear him out and argue rationally. It’s not as if this is a case like Kevin Spacey, where I love House of Cards but then can never re-watch it again without fully detaching myself from the real world narrative that weirdly pollutes the content.

Perhaps to some, he was and is a butcher. To others – myself included -, Marcus Aurelius was and is a teacher. Perhaps the truth of the Emperor, as these things often are, lies somewhere in between.



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