Upon his accession to the throne of Augustus in A.D. 364, the emperor Valentinian gave a short address to his troops. The speech is related in Ammianus Marcellinus’s history (XXVI.1). The historian tells us that Valentinian appeared on an open expanse of ground and mounted a platform that had been arranged for this purpose; he was also wearing an imperial robe and a coronet. The speech itself was short and to the point.
He began by thanking his men for their efforts in defending the provinces: at that time Rome’s holdings were facing simultaneous incursions from Persia in the east and from Germans in the north. He then gave a few thoughts on what he believed was best for the maintenance of the common welfare (quod conducere arbitror in commune). Foremost in his mind was the choice of an appropriate colleague to help him in the task of governance. In the period of the later empire, it was recognized that Rome was too large to be governed by one man. He knew he would have to contend with “huge volumes of worries” and “numerous changes in circumstances” (curarum acervos et mutationes varias accidentium). But the most important thing for him was the preservation and augmentation of “domestic concord,” something that was so valuable that “even weak countries could make use of it to become strong.” And this is undoubtedly true, as productivity and achievement can never be realized when a state is rent by factionalism, turbulence, and discord.
But the most important part of his short address were these sentences:
Fortune, the expediter of good plans, will hopefully give me a man of even-tempered character once I have done a diligent search, as far as I can do this and carry it through to completion. For as the wise men of old remind us–not only in matters of imperial power, where the greatest and most pressing dangers exist, but also in our daily and private affairs–a stranger should only be joined in friendship once a prudent man has evaluated him. He ought not to be first joined, and then judged. [XXVI.2].
Valentinian’s meaning is clear. We should not consider someone a trusted friend or confidant until after such a person has shown himself to be worthy of the title “friend.” We should not first consider someone a friend, and then only later put him through the evaluation process. In practice, of course, people often make this “evaluation process” a fast one; judgments are formed, and conclusions rendered, with the speed that expediency dictates. But you will eventually know the true character of something the longer you are in close proximity to it: the emperor Julian once mentioned (in his Oration on the Cynic Heracleios) the proverb “grape ripens against grape.”
Yet it is not always an easy matter to know how useful these simple formulations are. To rule an empire is not easy; to run a business is not easy; and to rule a household is extremely difficult. With all respect to the emperor Valentinian, quoted above, we need something more than just simple formulas. This is because the crush of Fortune is sometimes too difficult to bear. If the average man, setting out on a journey, knew every possible danger he faced, he might be inclined to abandon the whole thing before his ship ever left port. This is the problem with simple advice and simple formulations: it often has the effect of discouraging a man, rather than encouraging him. Wise policy is good, but it may not be enough, as the emperor Julian says in his Letter to Themistius:
For in such matters not virtue alone or a wise policy is paramount, but to a far greater degree Fortune holds sway throughout and compels events to incline as She wills…But a happiness that depends on the chances of Fortune is very rarely secure. And yet men who are engaged in public life cannot, as the saying is, so much as breathe unless she is on their side…Yet it is nothing wonderful to withstand Fortune when she is merely hostile, but much more wonderful it is to show oneself worthy of the favors she bestows. By her favors the greatest of kings, the conqueror [Alexander] of Asia was ensnared, and showed himself more cruel and more insolent than Darius and Xerxes, after he had become the master of their empire.
This primary role of Fortune in the affairs of men is a theme we have discussed here on many different occasions, and in many contexts; we have seen how Petrarch and Machiavelli tried to account for the role of Fortune in their own views of human affairs. The emperor Julian, whom I have just quoted above, presented his own interesting “solution” to the profoundly disturbing realization that we are not in control of everything in our lives. Julian quotes Plato’s Laws [709a], where the philosopher says,
God governs all things and with God, Fortune and Opportunity govern all human affairs: but there is a milder view that Art must needs go with them and must be their associate.
Julian went beyond even this. He thought that a man who was in charge of important affairs would inevitably become corrupted with authority; he would inevitably be filled with insolence and injustice. A Supreme Being, he believed, would therefore not allow human beings to be completely governed by themselves. Just as we humans do not allow goats and sheep to govern themselves, a Supreme Being would not want humans to be entirely self-governing. Placed over us, he says, are
[B]eings of a more divine and higher race, I mean demons [which can be either good or bad]…God, since he loves mankind, has set over us a race of being superior to ourselves, the race of demons; and they with great ease both to themselves and us undertake the care of us and dispense peace, reverence, aye, and above all justice without stint, and thus they make the tribes of men harmonious and happy.
It should clearly be understood that when Julian speaks of “demons” he does not intend this word’s modern, negative meaning. It is to be understood in its late Neoplatonic sense, colored by the theurgy of the philosopher Iamblichus: demons are intermediary “guiding spirits” between the worlds of Intellect and Soul. Cities and states that are not governed by some “divine spirit” are entirely left to the dangerous vagaries of Fortune:
…[I]n our day all cities that are governed not by a god but by a mortal man have no relief from evils and hardships. And the lesson is that we ought by every means in our power to imitate that life which is said to have existed in the days of Kronos: and in so far as the principle of immortality is in us we ought to be guided by it in our management of public and private affairs, of our houses and cities, calling the distribution of mind “law.”
But whether the government be in the hands of one man, or of an oligarchy or democracy, if it have a soul that hankers after pleasure and the lower appetites and demands to indulge these, and if such a one rules over a city or individual having first trampled on the laws, there is no means of salvation.
So what Julian means by this, clearly, is that human judgment is not enough to protect us from Fortune. We must seek the intercession of “higher beings” to aid us in this task. “To me, at any rate,” Julian said, “it seems that the task of reigning is beyond human powers, and that a king needs a more divine character, as indeed Plato too used to say.” But we must still focus on the study of character and virtue; for by doing so we adhere to the last words of the philosopher Plotinus in his Enneads, when he implored his readers to “seek the gods within you.” Self-study, then, almost becomes a divine duty, for it helps us to adopt divine aspects. The quote below perfectly summarizes his conclusion from a consideration of these questions, and deserves our careful attention:
But to conceive true opinions about God is an achievement that not only requires perfect virtue, but one might well hesitate whether it be proper to call one who attains to this a man or a god. For if the saying is true that it is the nature of everything to become known to those who have an affinity with it, then he who comes to know the essential nature of God would naturally be considered divine.
All facets of our lives, and all phases of our lives, contribute to this effort. The diligent study of the virtues and character actually assists a soul in rising to higher plane of existence, such that it can take on certain divine aspects. And in this way, it may be shielded from the cruelties and randomness of Fortune.
We are men, it is true: but we can become men like gods.
Learn more about Neoplatonic philosophy in a special chapter of Pantheon: