The sage in the spotlight of mainland society now is an outsider whose name may not necessarily be familiar despite cinematic exposure. Featured in the 2000 Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius (AD121–180) was the last of the "Five Good Roman Emperors" and a leading voice in stoic philosophy, which advocated accepting misfortune with virtustoughness or character.
Aurelius was a reluctant warrior and composed his classic work, Meditations, during campaigns lasting a decade from AD170. It contains a wealth of observations that reflect the stoic perspective and has one prominent admirer: Wen Jiabao. The Premier revealed last year that he had read the masterpiece almost 100 times, spawning a Marcus Aurelius craze that swept the Middle Kingdom and helped propel Meditations to the fifth place inthe admittedly government-backedChina Book International's best-seller list.
Greg Sung, founder of the Hong Kong-based booklovers' network aNobii.com, observes that Wen may exert more cultural influence than a Hollywood "mega-blockbuster": the portrayal of Marcus Aurelius by Richard Harris in Gladiator had less effect on book sales than the Premier's disclosure, Sung claims.
Wen's fascination with the dour, long-dead Roman may stem from a sense of fellowship, according to Russell McNeil, the author of Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated & Explained. History remembers Aurelius as the proverbial "philosopher king". Likewise, Wen, a geologist by training, has a reputation for being a deft administrator who takes a consensual, collegiate tack.
McNeil describes stoicism as "thoroughly rationalistic", anchored in arguments based on physics and "natural law", which means it squares with communist doctrine, which recognises no god. Better yet, stoicism has a "social", even socialist, slant. It decrees that morality should be based on doing what is right for the community or the state.
"Personal satisfaction or happiness in stoicism does not flow from the gratification of personal desires or the avoidance of hard work or pain," McNeil says.
When our actions stem from self-interest, we transgress. When we discriminate against others, we also err because, again, just like socialism, stoicism tells us we are all part of the proletariat and should treat everyone equally. The king is no better or worse than a pauper, Aurelius teaches, conjuring images of Wen in his famed plain green jacket, looking like a friendly next-door neighbour.
Despite being written on the march, Meditations was "multiethnic and multinational", according to McNeil, who says the true stoic rises above nationalism and sees the world as a single political entity.
Sung, for his part, credits fashion for the book's success on the mainland. He says the attention may have been amplified by a general renewed interest in the work of old masters such as the cryptic poet philosopher Master Zhuang, or Zhuangzi, who famously dreamed about being a butterfly. Hugely popular television lecture programmes on philosophy, hosted by university professors, are stoking the trend, Sung says.
Meditations has, moreover, won the endorsement of Bill Clinton. The former US president features it in his list of his 21 favourite books of all time, among works by the likes of George Orwell and Maya Angelou.
Bonnie Girard, president of business consultancy China Channel, is another fan. Like McNeil, Girard attributes the book's popularity partly to the fact that Aurelius ranks as a thinker but not a preacher. "In many ways," Girard says, "he is the antithesis of a religious or spiritual leader, so in modern Chinese political terms he is safe."
Girard says that Wen, the unflappable "super-mandarin", as characterised by Time magazine, believes people will benefit from absorbing Aurelius' work now especially, because the mainland is in the throes of a spiritual awakening.
Who better to direct the populace than a non-religious philosopher with no implied or actual affiliation to any of the world's great religions, says Girard. She paints Aurelius as a secular "lightning rod" with the power to help fulfil human hunger for answers to big questions.
With the economic boom boosting expectations and widening the wealth gap, Aurelius' robust attitude is an inspiration, Girard adds. "The Chinese respect strength, I believe, more than almost any other human characteristic."
The imperial superman immortalised by a legion of bronze and marble statues showed mercy to his vanquished enemies, battled corruption and slavery and even, like an early human rights agitator, decreed that gladiators fight with blunted weapons. When his empire was short on funds, instead of raising taxes he sold his plentiful belongings.
At home, Aurelius was forced to contend with everything from famine and earthquakes (which have long afflicted China too) to fires and plague. Abroad, he faced threats posed by Germanic tribes to the north and Parthians to the east. In the light of all the aggravation, few other historical figures seem so "battle-tested".
In case anyone doubts his gravitas, his publishers accord Aurelius the kind of reverence allotted the likes of Shakespeare and Socrates as top-tier literary greats. Penguin parades his book in its Great Ideas series devoted to writers who "shook civilisation". Watkins hails it as an inspiration to the best of humanity for almost two millennia. Tarcher calls Aurelius' voice "universal" and "equally recognisable to students of Christ, the Buddha, the Vedas, the Talmud and to anyone who sincerely searches for a way of meaning in contemporary life".
Aurelius' cachet transcends boundaries of ideology and geography.
"How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes," runs a characteristically terse Aurelius maxim.
Whatever their outlook, few readers will be disappointed by his writing given its considerable clarity and punch.