Marcus is discussing the value of virtue today. A few things pop out that are worthy of note. It can be difficult to tease apart a text and separate what might be personal influence from a wider cultural trend.
When Stoicism ceased to be a strictly Hellenic pursuit, and was take up in large part by the Romans, it had some of the rough edges knocked off, and was draped in Roman decorum. This was a novel addition. Just as the Stoicism that is practiced around the world today looks somewhat different from its iterations before, so did the Roman from the Greek. Marcus’ first chapter is an homage to Roman decorum, and we can detect the importance of this to him.
The next chapter is one of the more interesting parts, and it’s something which stuck with me. I’ve paraphrased it online often when discussing others, but I’ll reproduce it more faithfully here:
“If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self control and courage – that is, peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions to the laws of reason, and peace of mind under the visitations of destiny you cannot control – if, I say, you can discern any higher ideal, why, turn to it with your whole soul, and rejoice in the prize your found.”
— Meditations, III.7
I often see folks ask why virtue is the only good, and my answer is two-pronged. Firstly, that virtue is a good is an axiom, it is taken as self-evident and not generally subject to direct argument. Second, we can argue that externals are not good, such as one man may use wealth virtuously, and another viciously. So we cannot then say that wealth is a good if it may be used viciously. We do get explanations, as in Epictetus, that virtue is “up to us” therefore a proper avenue for our efforts, but these are sort of ancillary to the point.
Marcus’ offer here speaks to that: if you find anything better, then you must turn towards that object, and if you cannot you must work towards moral progress with everything you have.
The rest of this chapter are expansions on this idea. I don’t want to infer incorrectly what it might mean that Marcus spends the time he does on this issue, but I know for me it is the case that sometimes more than others the idea of virtue in and of itself is more or less motivating. In the times when it is less so, I find this section helpful and comforting.
Marcus closes this piece with an admonition against “the ends justify the means” types of reasoning. Many indifferent things which we might prefer can be acquired in unsavory ways. It is a clear danger to begin down the road of enjoying the benefits of (even other folks’) vicious projects.
This becomes difficult when run out to its logical conclusion, and I suspect the moral courage to stand in the face of this is an uncommon trait. Say for instance you are a citizen of a country called Pineland, or the employee of Mega Corp, or any other similar situation. You discover that the organization you’re affiliated with does some awful things in the service of the betterment of its people.
Marcus’ main injunction is not to value the benefits you might receive as a result, but is that good enough? Do we instead have an obligation not to receive them at all? We might fall back on a distinction between what’s up to and not up to us, but that doesn’t seem to resolve the conflict satisfactorily to me. Marcus seems to have resolved it for himself, however. As the closing lines of this chapter speak to keeping care of the δαίμων inside.
Either way, some decided food for thought. How do such ethical obligations extend to our activities in the polis? Should they at all? How far do those obligations go? Is it appropriate to use the polis to shape the moral discussion of others, to compel if not their thoughts (although there are some who do aim at this) at least their deeds?
A modern Stoic political theory is something which would be interesting to read. I’m not yet ready to write anything firmly in this topic, as I suspect I would be too inclined to use Stoicism to support my political commitments. From what I’ve read of others, this is true of them too.
Hopefully soon, we’ll have enough folks with enough progress under their belts to begin to discuss Stoic politics qua Stoics, and not as some other -ist or -ism.
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