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Father shows best



‘There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, nor, as one may say, anything carried to the sweating point; but he examined all things severally as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently.’

Replica of Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (edoardo taloni/Pixabay)

Those ‘chilled’ yet inspiring words by venerated Stoic philosopher and Caesar of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (describing his imperial adoptive father), are from his Meditations. They are widely held as a wise source of counsel.

Marcus A knew his stuff. Edward Gibbon referred to Marcus Aurelius’ regal stint as ‘possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government’.

As a Dad himself, however, how did MA measure up? The record suggests that even the best advice in the world doesn’t necessarily stick.

I have been thinking for several months about fathering and wisdom. To my surprise, I found some of Marcus Aurelius’ truisms to be reflected, if erratically, by the pronouncements of my own pater familias, Kenneth Hugh Gittins.

Ken is a garrulous, bucolic eccentric who worked hard in a thankless job while we grew up. He ensured we had food in our bellies, clothes on our back, shoes on our feet, God in our imaginations, music in our hearts and books in our hands.


'I learnt how to treat other people by looking at what my dad did, helping them with compassion and kindness (not necessarily by hearing what he said to them or about them). I hope one day my kids can make something of the same claim.'


Our Dad largely devoted his working years and retirement to his church, his neighbours, his community and public service, and since being widowed he’s spent significant time helping various churches and family members.  

Truth be told, I am much more likely in daily life to quote the sagacious Jedi Master Yoda, his Dudeness Jeff Lebowski, or Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Jesus Christ); but for this coming Fathers Day I offer you the opportunity to compare and contrast the ancient wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and the latter variations of Ken.

When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love. Marcus Aurelius

Get out of bed you sluggard; wash up, look after yourself and watch your toes. Ken Gittins

Whereas Marcus Aurelius was raised in luxury and plenty before he started ruling, Ken never grew weary of regaling us with tales of post-war hardship, breakfasts of bread and dripping, and of being seconded by his old man to drive the tractor on their farm at the age of five, (or four, or three, depending on Dad’s recollection or audience).

Life is for doing. The balance of privilege (rights) and duty is a challenge for all humans. Getting the balance right as a parent is a perennial difficulty.

Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life. Marcus Aurelius

What will your mother say? — Ken Gittins

Somewhere between gauging the ethical worth of my actions and desires, internalising discipline (or being externally disciplined), and valuing time as a precious commodity, I learnt to consider what I and others wanted, rather than acting without thinking. And that, in theory at any rate, I would get hit less if I did what I was told. I learnt from my dad not to administer corporal punishment.

A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. Marcus Aurelius

There will always be someone smarter than you, stronger than you, better looking than you, faster than you. But no-one can be more honest than you; have some integrity. — Ken Gittins

On the one hand, this kind of parental spiel used to infuriate me, adding to my lack of confidence and the insecurities of adolescence. The advice probably did save me from (some) of the arrogance of youth, however.

Stand straight not held straight. — Marcus Aurelius

You are big enough and ugly enough to look after yourself. — Ken Gittins

Dad always spoke to us as if we were adults; he never baby talked or spoke down to us. I think he enjoyed us more as we grew older, and we were able to hold our own in a debate and contribute (admittedly as a junior partner) to a lengthy conversation.

Dad didn’t intervene in our schooling or in other aspects of our lives. He held us to a high standard of behaviour, impossibly high perhaps; but he believed in us.

What we do now echoes in eternity… Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. Marcus Aurelius

Stop moaning; act decently so you can look at yourself in the mirror. Ken Gittins

In my own parental failings and missteps, I remind myself that there is no such thing as a perfect human being.

I don’t know about you, but the rebellions of youth and resentments of childhood have given way to a tacit acknowledgment of the fallible frailty I share with the bloke who fathered me.

I learnt how to treat other people by looking at what my dad did, helping them with compassion and kindness (not necessarily by hearing what he said to them or about them). I hope one day my kids can make something of the same claim.

Marcus Aurelius may have taught us that ‘the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts’, Ken taught me to not to live solely in my head, to ‘watch my Ps and Qs, not to get a big head,’ and — by his example — to look after people.

Any aspirations towards happiness, I’m amused to report, were a bonus.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: (edoardo taloni/Pixabay)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, father, Father's Day, Marcus Aurelius



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Existing comments

I was reminded that it's Father's Day next Sunday when my youngest daughter, whilst visiting last weekend, left a small package for her Dad. It will be duly presented. I like the interplay of wisdom between Marcus A. and Ken G. I would say my favourite Dad in literature would be Atticus Finch, not for his heroics in the courtroom (though impressive) but for his conversations with Jem and Scout. Bread and dripping for breakfast: mmmm.

Pam | 03 September 2020  

An interesting perspective. I was there but left early and missed a lot. I identify with a lot of your memories and insights and particularly like the way you’ve shared Dad’s “don’t do as I say; do as I do!” ethic. Thank you. Now go and do something useful lol.

Ashley Gittins | 03 September 2020  

Delightful juxtapositions, Barry! Thank you for lightening our day. Rose Marie Crowe

Rose Marie Crowe | 03 September 2020  

Dads......so underated! But what a massive impact they have on their kids.

Mike | 03 September 2020  

Careful, Mike. It's dangerous to propound such heresy. You could become an outcast in our society if you think dads have something special to offer their kids.

john frawley | 04 September 2020  

Forget the culture wars John! The planets are aligning, and there is a seismic shift happening with fathering. Young dads are engaging with their kids like never before. And supporting their partners. Dads are being told they are important and valued. Among the harbingers of this cultural transformation is ‘The Father Hood’ – a brilliant and inspiring enterprise – young dads supporting young dads – through these astonishing times. Check it out!

mike kelly | 07 September 2020  

Crikey Mike I didn't realise my father was so far in advance of the times!!!

john frawley | 07 September 2020  

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