Marcus Aurelius, Pope Francis, and The Hunger Games hunger after righteousness
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
The cinematic conclusion to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is surprising and refreshing. It doesn’t pander to teenage wish fulfillment or fantasy, as one might expect from a series of “young adult” novels.
Instead, the saga’s conclusion gives a decidedly grown-up view of how imperfect the world is and always will be. We are left with a heroine of spiritual yearnings who, after surviving society’s deadly Hunger Games, after failing to find perfect justice in this world, still hungers after righteousness.
It is a sober and serious conclusion, convincingly embodied by actress Jennifer Lawrence. Her character’s final seriousness befits this tale of how worldly political power uses both propaganda and rituals of violence to control a fractious populace.
True to the book, our heroine Katniss Everdeen is haunted at the end, and for the rest of her life, by disturbing nightmares. The nightmares come from her life experiences of war and violence.
Nevertheless, Katniss uses a philosophical technique to deal with the violent traumas of her life. Just as in the novel’s Epilogue, Katniss teaches us how she now deals with life’s fragility and her bad memories of the Hunger Games.
In the penultimate paragraph, Katniss tells us, “on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.”
“But there are much worse games to play,” she concludes, alluding to the repetitive violence of the gladiatorial Hunger Games which she has survived.
As with her gladiatorial combats, so too Katniss’s philosophical technique has precedent in the philosophical schools of antiquity. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers practiced meditations of gratitude as a way of dealing with the vicissitudes of fortune.
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, recorded his own Meditations in a journal that survives from the second century. Christopher Gill, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, has published one of the best scholarly commentaries on Marcus’s journal.
Here is Gill’s translation of a key passage in which Marcus is apparently describing the purpose of his mental exercises in gratitude:
“There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order,” writes Marcus.
“So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress,” he continues (Meditations, 4.3.1).
Not only does it have the same purpose, Katniss’s own meditation also parallels the procedure of Marcus Aurelius, as we learn elsewhere in the Emperor’s journal:
“Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such as the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another, and some other quality in someone else,” advises Marcus, as does Katniss.
“There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand,” he concludes (Meditations, 6.48).
The Emperor’s meditation journal is comprised of 12 small books. What is remarkable is that the entire first book differs from all the rest.
Unlike the other books, in which Marcus’s thoughts range through various topics, his first book is devoted entirely to gratitude. In that book, Marcus simply lists people he has known. Then, he chronicles, in minute detail, their assorted virtues and good qualities.
The fictional Katniss thereby shares with the real Emperor Marcus her self-fortifying attempts to chronicle “every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.”
Pope Francis summed up on Nov. 22, the Feast of Christ the King, the difference between the violent logic of the world (which can weigh on you as it does upon Katniss and Marcus) and the peacemaking logic of the Gospel.
Worldly logic is rooted in “ambition and competition,” said the Pope, and it “fights with weapons of fear, blackmail, and manipulation of conscience.”
But the logic of the Gospel expresses itself “in humility and gratitude, silently yet effectively with the strength of the truth,” said Francis.
I am grateful that Pope Francis teaches these same peacemaking virtues. Echoed in literary exemplars like Katniss and historical rarities like Marcus, they express a blessed hungering after righteousness.