Marcus again addresses issues with a 1-2 punch. He begins by discussing the failings of old age, the creeping theft that is senility and dementia. Not only are we limited to 70 or 80 years by virtue of the body, but the period of our lives in which our minds are sharpest might only be from age 20 to some unknown period less than the body’s.
That’s a staggeringly motivating observation.
Yet, Marcus knows his own mind, and by extension, is familiar with ours. He immediately follows up, preempting really, the conclusion that this is a fact over which to be sad, or morose, or lamenting. Rather, he begins a description of “flaws which beautify.”
He is speaking of the cracks in bread or fruit, laugh lines in the faces of the elderly, etc. I’m reminded of Kintsugi, or ‘golden joinery.’ It’s a method of repairing damaged or broken ceramics with gold, the result is a piece more beautiful, at least to my eye, than the original was.
Marcus knows himself well enough to see that the observation of a limited time, and increasingly real chances of failure are demoralizing to we non-Sages, so he immediately tempers that with something closer to a cosmic perspective, where the “flaws” are needed, and actually beautify the final point.
It’s one thing to remember this ameliorating counter-balance when writing and reading, quite another to remember to do so in daily life. This is the reason the Discipline of Assent is so crucial, the active monitoring of impressions to buy that little bit of time before automatic judgments are made. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but absolutely necessary in the Stoic program.
I chose a new-to-me translation for this project, the Staniforth. I’m quite enjoying this work, I think it is very well done. The cover of the version I have is a sort of Byzantine icon looking rendition of a Jesus figure, and the inside dust jacket reference Christianity more than the Stoics. All that aside, Staniforth is becoming my new favorite translation of Meditations.
If you have one or two translators whose work you prefer, let me know in the comments.
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— Kevin, the Mountain Stoic
The two sections today, at first glance, appear to have not much in common. The first is a list of personal failings, and the second is a meditation on time/death with a poetic description of the charge of a philosopher. There is a common thread, however.
To keep the soul in good shape.
Chapter 17 is the broad strokes, the 30,000 foot view of life in the universe, the arising and falling away, the constant eddies of matter immortal. Chapter 16 is the specifics: thinks Marcus reminds himself, and us, to steer away from.
I particularly like the framing of this as “self-inflicted wrongs.” We’re not talking about violating the tenets of a revealed faith, the νόμος of our society, or even the general culture. No, these are rationally discovered, self-inflicted injuries to the proper functioning of the human spirit.
For summary’s sake, here is Marcus’ list:
- To go against the order of the cosmos, and make one’s self a tumor on the world.
- To act against others unjustly, especially in passion.
- To surrender to sense impressions, esp. pleasure/pain.
- To act/speak untruthfully.
- Moral laziness, and actual waywardness.
Number five is interesting, because we often see Marcus admonishing himself to put away his books, or focus on practicalities, etc. He must have seen himself as a distracted or wayward person. I suspect he was too hard on himself, it appears to me from his writing that he simply had the nature of a scholar, rather than a man of action. Yet, he assumed the rule fate assigned him, and did his duty.
There is a lot going on in these three passages, but there are two themes, or practices rather, I would like to touch on today. It’s sort of funny, as the title “Meditations” is a sort of fiction in English language versions of Marcus’ notes. They are typically titled “To himself” or “Notes to himself.” Marcus gave them no titles, as it was a philosophical diary of sorts, never intended for other readership let alone global, multi-language publication.
In today’s sections, I can identify two distinct meditation types in Marcus’ notes.
- The meditation on death, passing, and time.
- Objective description of impressions.
In the first part, Marcus describes that we can imagine the great flow of time, and how objects and people arise, exist, and fall away. We can imagine a scene like a time lapse photo, speeding years into seconds until even mountains wither at the touch of wind and water. He also discusses specific meditation on death, our own and others. There is a striking similarity here to meditation on impermanence.
The second is to describe impressions objectively, to name them, especially regarding pleasurable sense impressions. This bears a strong similarity to insight meditation as practiced in the Ajaan Tong tradition.
There’s a lot of internet chatter about the apparent similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism, most of which is a bit superficial to my mind. However, we do see here two clear references to what look to me to be similar practices.
It’s worth nothing that we don’t have textual examples of any classical Stoics doing sitting or breathing meditations. We do have this sort of “odd man out” with Socrates that I discussed earlier. Either way, meditation has not typically been part of my Stoic practice, but I think I’ll give this a more serious try with Marcus’ recommendation.
The Three Τόποι of Epictetus are a recurring theme here, and I want to draw your attention to several episodes of Chris Fisher’s “Stoicism on Fire” podcast.
Specifically, his discussion here:
Episode 7 – Stoic Spiritual Exercises
Episode 8 – The Theory of Assent
Episode 9 – The Discipline of Assent
Episode 10 – The Theory of Desire
Episode 11 – The Discipline of Desire
Episode 13 – The Theory of Action
Episode 14 – The Discipline of Action
These are part of the larger “Path of the Prokopton” series on the Podcast.