MMRP: Book II, Chapters 12-15

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Image result for marcus aurelius coinThere 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.

 


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

MMRP: Book II, Chapters 10-11

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A Greek Amazon, probably not what Marcus meant by

A Greek Amazon, probably not what Marcus meant by “womanish.”

Two things are of note that I wish to discuss for this reading.  One is philological, and the other is theological.  The first one is this word which Staniforth translates as “womanish” in this section.

“… whereas sins of desire, in which pleasure predominates, indicate a more self-indulgent and womanish disposition.”

In other texts, when I’ve seen words in English translated this way, a better translation is often ‘soft.’  So I went looking for the Greek, the native language of the Meditations.

θηλύτερος is the word used.  It can be used to mean soft or malleable, but is more specifically related to “of the female sex,” feminine, or effeminate.  So… Marcus does indeed seem to mean what Staniforth says he does.  We often see this sort of language in classic philosophical texts, a sign of the times.  Too bad Marcus never met Hipparchia, eh?

We have the benefit of many translators, but it is also nice to be able look at the texts ourselves and compare.  You don’t have to have a perfect familiarity with Greek to do this, surely I do not.  If you know the alphabet, some core roots/stems, and have some resources like the Greek Word Study Tool, you’ll do all right.

The second point I’d like to draw attention to is simply a refutation of the incorrect interpretation which I see bandied about by popularizes and their readers frequently.  I typically see folks saying that Marcus’ disjunction “providence or atoms” is an admission of doubt or agnosticism regarding the Stoic conception of providence (Gr: πρόνοια).  You may come away with this idea if you haven’t read the rest of the work, or if you an axe to grind.

Let’s settle that, though.

“But if there are no gods, or if they have no concern with mortal affairs, what is life to me, in a word devoid of gods or devoid of Providence?  Gods, however, do exist, and do concern themselves with the world of men.”

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I believe as Marcus does, but we can at least stop misrepresenting the man’s ideas.  Marcus frequently poses rhetorical questions to himself, not because the answer is in doubt, but because regardless of the answer’s truth-value, he understands that living in the Stoic way is best.

In this specific case, however, even that is not in doubt.  He knows the answer for himself.


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

MMRP: Book II, Chapters 4-9

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“Remember how long you have put off these things; and how often you have neglected to use the opportunities offered you by the Gods. It is high time to understand what sort of whole you are a part of; and who that President in the universe is, from whom you flowed, as a small stream from a great fountain. There is a certain time appointed for you, which, if you don’t employ in making all calm and serene within you, it will pass away, and you along with it; and never more return.”

It is heartening to see that Marcus thought it necessary to remind himself of the same sorts of positions I also need.  It’s shocking, really, how astute the classical Stoics’ observations on humanity were, that so many of them are as relevant in 300 BC Athens as AD 2018 America.  This ‘equity in failing.’ I suspect, is one of the reasons his words still touch people nearly 2000 years after they were written.  The struggles of a philosophically inclined monarch are analogues to my own, and probably to yours.  It’s not because either of us is extraordinary in this respect, but because of the struggles of life as humans.

Meditations is probably the “core” Stoic text I re-read the least, but every time I dip back into it, I’m startled to find how poignant it is.  Meditations is a work that speaks to something in me that often doesn’t get articulated, whereas Epictetus and Musonius speak directly to the logical sense of myself.

“Remember these things always: what the nature of the universe is: what thine own nature: and how related to the universe: What sort of part thou art, and of what sort of whole: and that no man can hinder thee to act and speak what is agreeable to that whole, of which thou art a part.”

 


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

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.