When Mary Met Marcus: Virtue Returns

Hackney Tours Arkem Hannah at Newington Green
The most famous woman you never heard of?

Today is Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday. I can’t help thinking she’d be hugely impressed by the incredible phenomenon that is Mutual Aid groups in this Corona Virus year. Popping up all over, they’re filling a massive need in a city no stranger to Food Poverty. Some estates are receiving 300 meals 2-3 times per week. A group reported finding elders who haven’t eaten for three days – and promptly found them food.

This is a good thing, right? Not the food poverty or the ubiquity of food banks, but the response? So why is it in this day and age that people use the term ‘do gooder’ as a pejorative? Why don’t we hear more about the ancient concept of virtue? Some of the people we most admire, indeed many of them, are people who try to make a difference. Are we embarrassed today to be seen to care ‘too much’?

Virtue (Latin: virtus, Ancient Greek: ἀρετή “arete”) is moral excellence.A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness. In other words, it is a behavior that shows high moral standards. (Wikipedia)
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At last, thanks to campaign group Mary on the Green, the appreciation of 1790s activist/writer/educator/philosopher Wollstonecraft is spreading beyond the relatively niche confines of activists and academics. Her achievements are reaching a wider audience. It’s about time. There will be a monument soon, the first one in this country, to a woman who took on the intellectual establishment to demand equality for half the planet.

I started some walks about the radical history of Stoke Newington and Newington Green when I discovered Mary, as well as London’s first women’s history running tour. Now these things are at least reasonably frequent, if not mainstream. (NB guide Rachel Kolsky has been covering these things for some time and written extensively on women’s history in London and is very good at it too).

Yesterday was the birthday of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. His posthumous star is also rising again, as the ancient philosophical tradition of Stoicism enjoys a resurgence. Stoicism explicitly refers to doing the right thing: by yourself, by those around you and by society. Virtue is an unashamedly venerated component. Why are we here, if not to be the best versions of ourselves we can? Don’t we all share an interest in a better world?

Make them free, and they will quickly become wise and virtous, as men become more so; for the improvement must be mutual, or the injustice which one half of the human race are obliged to submit to, retorting on their oppressors, the virtue of men will be worm-eaten by the insect whom he keeps under his feet”

(Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’)

A better world isn’t just for the selfless either. If you lived in a £20m house but the streets were so dangerous that you hid in your compound and didn’t dare go out, that’s not really success is it? Hilary Clinton notably said women’s rights are human rights. More recently, Russell Brand said that how we treat the vulnerable is a measure of our society.

Unfairness shames those at the top of the pyramid. And if it goes too far? A Ministry of Defence think tank was reported as suggesting a decade ago that if inequality continued to grow, the middle class could radicalise and become revolutionary. Mary visited Paris during the French Revolution and saw what happened when too many were pushed too far (see artwork below).

Mary Vindication Louisa annotated v2
Artwork by Louisa Albani. See link at the end. It’s worth it!

I don’t know if Mary Wollstonecraft ever read Marcus Aurelius. But they both shared a commitment to personal integrity. Mary Wollstonecraft believed in Perfectability, the idea that if you work at it, you can make yourself a better person. Marcus Aurelius believed that a little self-discipline could yield big rewards as well as making you a better citizen of his empire. We call the ‘Self Help’ section ‘Personal Growth’ now, but you can find Stoic thought behind everything from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy books to Philosophy titles and even military thinking.

In an era when people are allegedly ‘sick of experts’, we’re suddenly utterly reliant on them as the science of Covid19 is tossed over in the media. Mary and Marcus were both were fans of Reason; Mary was an Enlightenment hero, way ahead of her time. Stoics like Marcus believed putting reason over passion would help us make the right decisions: right for us, right for the world.

They both refer to Providence, yet insist on going past the obstacles fate might lay in front of them to to their goals. This is for themselves, but also for the greater good. Both led remarkable lives. Both are admired. As far as I know, people didn’t refer to either of them as kill-joys or bores. Does the Devil really have the best tunes?

As an emperor Marcus was feared, he got immediate respect; Mary had to wait a long time for reputational rehabilitation. But neither did what they did for “the applause of fools”, as Marcus bluntly put it. We may never become famous like them, but if we act with integrity and care we will have earned something much more important than external validation. We’ll have a powerful internal personal reward that can’t be bought.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

(Marcus Aurelius: ‘Meditations’)

So as we see support networks spontaneously form across our cities, as neighbours step up to feed each other amid the lockdown, we might dust off that ancient idea of virtue and remember that just because something is old, it doesn’t mean it isn’t still useful. Knowledge is contemporary, wisdom is timeless. Let’s raise a glass from our lockdown locations and volunteer stations and celebrate an old idea: we can make a better world and we can create a legacy. And we can be happier for it too.

Hackney Tours is collaborating with Newington Green Meeting House in 2020. The existing Hackney Champions & Changemakers tour focuses on social enterprise and sustainability initiatives in Social Enterprise Borough Hackney, against a background of centuries of Dissenters rocking the boat to make a better world here in East London.

Follow the Hackney Tours Instagram feed to see Hackney from some different angles.

In 2019, I collaborated with artist Louisa Albani on a pamphlet inspired by William Blake, contributing a number of short pieces about this contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft. To see Louisa’s work on Mary in revolutionary France and her daughter Mary Shelley, click here.

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