MMRP: Book II, Chapters 1-3

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Today’s selection hits three points:

  • Marcus’ daily premeditation on adversity for dealing with others.
  • An objective description of the body, and what the far more noble part of man is.
  • A reminder on the Providential ordering of the cosmos, and what his work is and is not.

This selection in itself could be used as an example that these notes are a philosophical exercise, and not the workings of a depressive or addicted mind as some have claimed.  All three of this have a common thread woven in them.  These exercise are used to help Marcus, and by extension us, prepare himself for the realities of dealing with others as we find them.  We also see a nod back to the Socratic position that all who do evil do so against their will, because they misunderstand the nature of the Good.

Marcus prepares himself to deal with the less-than-best in others, and it immediately follows with the why.  There are two reasons for this:

  • 1) These others who may fall short of their own best are still brothers in the Logos.
  • 2) The wrongdoing of others doesn’t affect our own virtue.

Many of Marcus’ reminders are focused on his roles, which with his affection for the Discourses of Epictetus and his own personal situation is not surprising.  He constantly reminds himself to put away distractions and focus on his obligations.  A very interesting part of the Meditations is that we get to see how Marcus himself thought about his struggles, where his own impediments lay, and how he sought to work through them.

 


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’ Meditations.

MMRP: Book I, Chapter 17

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Marcus closes his Book I, fittingly, by thanking the Gods.  Stoic theology is a strange critter for the modern westerner, steeped in fifteen hundred years of Abrahamic context.  For many new Stoics, shaking their relationship is the hardest part of reading the Stoics.  Immediately they begin spinning up ideas of omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient personality.

Marcus’ gratitude shows not to be the case.  He simply looks at his life, and is thankful that a Providential cosmos has placed him there, and then, and in the manner which was most conducive to his development.  He maintains a proper understanding of the scale of self compared with that cosmos, and as is fitting, is thankful.  This perspective is piety.

It’s just and proper, then, that Marcus ends this section with a straight forward thanking of the Gods; a useful reminder for all of us.  If this topic interests you, I’d readily point you to Chris, at TraditionalStoicism.com for more.

 


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’ Meditations.

MMRP: Book I, Chapter 16

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In Chapter 16 Marcus enters into the longest discussion of Book I yet, and shows us his father.  I’ve recently been reading about Epictetus’ sense of Roles which differ significantly from Cicero’s account, the more prevalent one.  In reading Marcus’ thoughts on his father, it seems to of two types of observations.  The first, being how the man executed his various roles: carefully, controlled, effectively, and with fairness.  The second being the manner in which the man carried on his daily life: a seeming paragon of Roman decorum.

When Stoicism ceased to be a Greek-speaking realm’s pheromone, and migrate to Rome, it underwent some changes.  Hellenistic philosophy sometimes had hard edges, that cut deeply into the lives of those that handled it.  In Rome, some of those edges were knocked down.  The Cynic’s παρρησία, while still tolerated even in the watered down Roman manner, was pushed aside for the decorum.  Marcus’ discussion of his father shows this, in the focus on his roles and bearing while executing his duties as a Roman.

It is a great loss for those of us studying the Stoics not much of the early Hellenistic Stoics remains.  I still hold out my hopes for a “Stoic Herculaneum” of sorts.

The last note, about Maximus and his sickbed, make me wonder what Marcus might remember of his own father.  Back in Chapter 2, you may remember that he mentions “of what I remember” and stories he’s heard.  A quick internet search tells me that Marcus would have been about three years of age when his father died.  Not everyone has memories of that time of their life.  I have a couple, and one even older, but that’s pretty uncommon.  I wonder if Marcus’ only memory of his father is of the man’s death?  That would be something.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’ Meditations.

MMRP: Book I, Chapters 12-15

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The Stoic conception of the Sage has undergone some changes throughout time.  It has variously been an achievable human ideal but one of exception, seen as an achievable sort of “every-man’s virtue,” and an unachievable ideal used as a model against which to measure behavior.  We’ve talked about two of these on the blog, that I can recall readily.

Chrysippus of Soli, Second Scholarch of the Stoa.

Chrysippus of Soli, Second Scholarch of the Stoa.

Marcus’ continued exercise stands as a reminder that we can find examples of appropriate actions (καθήκοντα) without going too far.  It is easy to look to people from whom we’re separated by great spans of time and space:  Epictetus, Diogenes, Zeno, and then to imagine ourselves so far from that ideal.  However, we can also look more closely to home: to mentors, teachers, family members, and the good folks we come across every day.  These folks may not be Sages, but it’s entirely possible that their actions and attitudes can provide a mirror for our own progress.

A co-worker may handle set backs, and tough management with a seemingly unnatural aplomb.  We can admire that, and seek to inculcate that same project from a Stoic perspective.  They may not take the same route to get there that we do, but the action is certainly appropriate to one making progress.

A family friend may handle the declining health and eventual loss of a parent with care, kindness, and genuine affection.  Such is certainly appropriate for us in our familial roles.

A good friend may decline dessert, have but one drink, exercise moderately, and choose good foods:  the very picture of moderation and self-control.  Certainly this is appropriate for the practicing Stoic?

Examples of “good behavior” abound, and (for those in the US), maybe especially needed during a period of general discourtesy and social tension.

 


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’ Meditations.

MMRP: Book I, Chapters 8-11

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Book I continues in Marcus’ exercise in gratitude, specifically of teachers and mentors.  The thing which stuck out at me for this section is that these teachers are in the past, but they appear to be quite a ways in the past, rather than just a year or even five ago at the time of the writing.

It’s been my experience that I didn’t fully recognize the teachers who made a lasting impression until much later.  The same is true for family members.  The formative effect of my grandfather wasn’t apparent to me until I saw his words, thoughts, and actions as things of myself as well.

The seeds of the people we become are planted deep and early, and it seems only when the bows have grown heartily that the core nature of it visible.

I mentioned to my wife recently that it seemed a great loss that she never got to meet my grandfather.  My mother overheard this and said, “Kevin makes sense if you knew my Dad.” This caught me by surprise, for as this relationship has become apparent to me, I was unaware that it was apparent to others.  Which is rather silly, in retrospect.

I wonder if Marcus had similar experiences, looking back on a life lived, and seeing the landmarks only afterwards, the people and beliefs which guided him to where he now stood?  I think that this must be the case when I re-read Book I.

 


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’ Meditations.

MMRP: Book I, Chapters 1-7

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Today kicks off Michel Daw’s project of the reading of Marcus’ Meditations. You can find the pdf of the plan here.

Book I is an exercise in gratitude. Marcus thanks and gives credit to those who helped shaped the man he has become. I begins first with family, noting their specific contribution to his rearing and formation. He moves on to teachers and philosophers, who helped inculcate in him early that philosophy is thing to do, a way of life, and not merely analytical and rhetorical exercise.

For this reading plan, I’m reading a new-to-me translation by Maxwell Staniforth (1964). Staniforth notes that the title of the work, which was never intended to be read by others let alone published globally and in many languages, is titled “Meditations” in the English world solely by convention. In the Greek (in which it was written, not Latin) it is ΤΩΝ ΕΙΣ ΕΑΥΤΟΝ, or “to himself” sometimes “The Emperor to Himself.”

Koine Greek was the language of philosophy in Rome, with a few key exceptions (Cicero, Seneca, et al.) Marcus was clearly proficient in the language, and the whole of the book is a compendium of philosophical exercises, or spiritual exercises if you like: ὑπομνήματα. This word, ὑπομνήματα, means something like “notes” or “reminders.”


I will begin this reading of Meditations with a Book I of my own.

To my grandfather and father I owe the appreciation of the example of hard work and the meaning of family ties. These men set an example in this arena which I have never met, but which was so great that even when I see myself fall short, I stand out among my colleagues and coworkers. Also to my grandfather, the love of music and stories.

To my mother I owe the belief that life must be meaningful, that the all-too-common settling for the average is a danger to be avoided. To her I also attribute the structure of my understanding of things divine; as well as my love of reading, writing, and great literature.

Two teachers of mine stand out in memory from my formative years: Dr. Seitz and Mr. Fields. These two provided me with the example of excellent instructors, passionate orators, and genuinely caring men. In an environment which is not overly conducive to such things, these two changed my perspective on more than just lecture material.

Two more recent teachers who have helped to shape my efforts in philosophy, carefully correcting errors and misapprehensions but also knowing when to step back and let me solve a problem or grow in my time: Erik Wiegardt and Chris Fisher.

To Yannos, Brendan, Germano and Chaz for always being willing soundboards, mutual advisers, friends, and teachers.

To several close friends: for supporting me and helping me rebuild when I myself could not see a way out of the ruins and ashes of my external endeavors.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’ Meditations.

Musonius-esque living, Cynicism, Hercules, and the Pseudo-Lucian.

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I recently read “The Cynic,” by the Pseudo-Lucian.  This work is a dialogue between Lycinus and an unnamed paragon of Cynicism.  The dialogue has a Socratic feel, being mostly one of questions and answers.  Also, Lycinus begins with the (mistaken) belief that he already knows a thing or two about a thing or two.  Our Cynic, however, proves to him that he holds contradicting beliefs, which cannot stand with each other with integrity upon examination.

There is a marked difference, in my estimation, to the Socratic dialogues, in that the Cynic also believes he knows something.  These sorts of essays written under the auspices of other philosophers, often have a proselytizing component, as most of the Cynic Epistles did.  For this reason, it’s not surprising then that our Cynic is in fact teaching explicitly.

The Cynic explains after Lycinus’ first question, that he is no condition of want, his needs are fulfilled, and he is healthy.  Lycinus then jumps into a description which I think lines up well with the modern person’s misconstruing of preferred indifferents (προηγμένα) in Stoicism.  I’ve seen folks who seems to think the Stoic position prompts the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and other things which a Cynic would call typhos (τυφώς), and then make similar arguments.  This is not the case, by my reading, although it may allow for projects in these realms secondary to virtue.  Yet, I still prefer that these projects ought to be built so as to train us for virtue, a point to which we will return shortly.

Lycinus’ position is wrapped up in a strange theological argument; that to deny the bounty of nature and the ability of our bodies to take pleasure in these things which are provided is in fact a sort of impiety.  Immediately after, however, he gets to the meat of it:  he doesn’t like to go without the things he like.

“To live without all these would be miserable enough even if one could not help it, as prisoners cannot, for instance; it is far more so if the abstention is forced upon a man by himself; it is then sheer madness.” Lycinus says.

The Cynic responds with a point which is well at home in the world of Stoicism, that the manner in which we use these things is not in and of itself valuable, but only instrumentally so.  The things are indifferent, but our intent and actions can have a moral component for our own virtue.  We cannot inculcate σωφροσύνη (moderation, sort of [Wiki], [MS on food] ) if we don’t actually act out the virtue.

The Cynics makes his point with a metaphor that should not be novel to a student of Stoicism.  We also see it in Epictetus: the dinner party:

Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine. 

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 15

The Cynic takes it a bit further, expounding on the idea and pulling back the curtain on the illustration which in the Enchiridion is hinted at.

… [T]he hospitable entertainer is God, who provides this variety of all kinds that each may have something to suit him; this is for the sound, that for the sick; this for the strong and that for the weak; it is not all for all of us; each is to take what is within reach, and of that only what he most needs.

All of this goes to underscore the point that the Cynic’s goal is “enough” not a surfeit.   He explains that his cloak meets his needs, his feet fulfill their function unshod, his body is adorned as a man’s ought to be, and the needs of his stomach met easily.

It’s important that we also note a difference here between the Cynic school, our mother school, and the Stoic.  Cynicism was descended from the Cyrenaics, where pleasure is held to be a good.  It might seem strange at first that a school which held up ἡδονή (pleasure) as a good would chose to live as the Cynics did.  Yet we see a parallel in the Epicureans, who espoused a more meager sort of pleasure, a simple kind.  At this point our schools diverge, on the underlying moral values.  The reasoning, though, is similar as it’s presented here.  How we handle material, external, indifferent things has a moral component and matters in the practice and progress of our own virtue.

Image result for murexThe Cynic then proceeds to attach several luxuries in succession, pointing out the same rule, that a lack of want and glut are not the same.  Afterwards, he turns Lycinus’ false piety on its head, and discusses the same purple dye we see from Zeno through Epictetus to Marcus: the murex and its blood. He states that to misuse this creature, not as food, but to color their clothes for aesthetic reasons is an impiety.

It’s interesting to me how this little shellfish dances through the Stoic canon and related works.  If future Stoics are looking for an emblem of sorts, this little guy might make an interesting one.  An interesting spin on Epictetus’ be the purple, maybe?  I’ve chosen my own icon, but there is room for others.

After this, we get another look at one of Seneca’s Sages, Hercules.  In many ways, next to Socrates, Hercules is the patron of both the Cynics and Stoics, and Pseudo-Lucian shows us why.  He closes with a long monologue, no longer fielding questions, but teaching as if a lecture, or public pedagogue.  Image result for hercules statue lion

These externals that you pour contempt upon, you may learn that they are seemly enough not merely for good men, but for Gods, if you will look at the Gods’ statues; do those resemble you, or me? Do not confine your attention to Greece; take a tour round the foreign temples too, and see whether the Gods treat their hair and beards like me, or let the painters and sculptors shave them. Most of them, you will find, have no more shirt than I have, either. I hope you will not venture to describe again as mean an appearance that is accepted as godlike.

Most of this discourse would be at home in the lectures of Musonius or Epictetus.  The Cynic heritage which Zeno introduced into his philosophy continues to be of relevance.  To me, this pieces asks us to examine the externals of our lives and weight them against our moral training.  The manner in which we eat, dress, sleep, and comport ourselves is training: but it is training us towards virtue?  That is the operative question.  You may not need to wear a thread-bare and simple cloak (τρίβων) or lion’s skin.  You may not need to subsist on lupine beans (which are expensive where I live, but were cheap for Diogenes).  You may not need to live without home, spouse, or work.  But you may need to address how you do those things in light of our philosophy’s ideals.  I certainly do, and the Cynic seems to know that as well:

… [T[he fact being that you in your own affairs go quite at random, never acting on deliberation or reason, but always on habit and appetite. You are no better than people washed about by a flood; they drift with the current, you with your appetites.