Why Marcus’ advice to himself is wrong for you.

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“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

— Meditations X.16


One of the things which often seems to be forgotten, is that the title which is traditionally given to what we call “Meditations” in English is Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν or “Things to one’s self” and sometimes just “To himself.”  Marcus never intends his notes to be read by another, and certainly that matters when we’re interpreting his writings.

Below are a few reasons why the above passage (and others like it) likely don’t apply to the modern Stoic student.
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1. Marcus was already firmly studied in Stoicism.

Marcus had several private tutors in philosophy from a young age.  Whether it be Fronto or Rusticus, during the formative years of his life he had a solid philosophical influence.  Most of us come to philosophy in adulthood, and we lack the decades of grounding that Marcus had.  When he admonishes himself from study to action, he knows this.  It simply doesn’t apply to the nascent προκόπτων in the same way.  We ought to prefer practice to theory alone, but we do need the theory.

2. Marcus had training in Stoic moderation (ἄσκησις )

From an early age, Marcus was used to the Greek regimen of moderation and simplicity.  Early on in the Meditations, he recounts how his mother and others would try and dissuade him from these practices.  Most of the 21st century Stoic practitioners are not preforming the physical training that we see over and over in Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus.  True Stoic moderation appears extreme to those of us steeped in a level of indulgence that would be staggering to the ancients.  For this reason, Marcus was already practiced in the things which for most of us are mere theory, cold showers aside.

3. Marcus was in a particular and rare circumstance.

As the Emperor of a large empire, Marcus had external demands and duties which are radically different from ours.  This is not to enter a value judgment about which are better, easier, or preferable, it’s a mere fact that they are different.  The Roman Stoics had more of a focus on roles and duties than their predecessors; and Marcus would have felt this strongly. For him, his time is better spent in embodying the virtues he has already come to know than it would be in further study.  We, however, have need to inculcate these points in our daily lives, and this requires study and learning.

4. Marcus had access to resources we do not (probably).

It is generally accepted that the works of Epictetus to which Marcus had been introduced was probably some version of Arrian’s notes: The Discourses.  We also know that there were four additional Books which have been lost to time.  It seems likely to me that Marcus had access to those lost books.  Since we are working with only a fraction of the Stoic record, we have to work more intensely and diligently on them than those who had access to more.  Marcus may admonish himself to have fewer books, but he had access to ones we do not.

5. Marcus was living and operating in a world where Stoicism was a major social influence.

Any educated Roman of Marcus’ time would have been familiar with Stoic philosophy, at least the broad strokes.  Greek philosophy helped shape Rome in profound and serious ways.  In may ways, Marcus practice while extraordinary for an Emperor, was relatively common in and of itself.  We students of ancient philosophy, especially those of us seeking to make philosophy a way of life, are outliers.  Rather than stepping into the well worn ruts of those who have gone before, we find ourselves forging new paths, and carving roads into a wilderness 2,000 years deep.  This distance of time requires different strategies, tools, and work than Marcus himself needed.

It seems to me that there is much to gain from Marcus’ writings, but it is also important to take from them judiciously.  I cannot help but see parallel struggles (and sometimes the exact same ones) in Marcus’ writings as I have in my own life.  Yet some are unique to his time, others unique to his person.  So when Marcus tells himself to pair down his bookshelf, waste no more time in contemplation, etc., these might not be true for us.

I certainly encourage frequent reading of the work, and a careful application of a critical rule which shifts what’s applicable to us and what is not.  So before you set aside something which might seriously affect your training, consider whether that in fact applies to you.

MMRP: Book IV, Chapters 45-51

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“[Typically we wail] ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say rather, ‘How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.’”

— 49


This section has two main themes as I see it.  The first, being on the shortness of life, that no matter the trial or efforts spent in extending it, it is always blazingly short.  The second, on which I would like to focus today, is on that the suffering of life occurs as judgments, and not as facts of themselves.  The quote I pulled for today leans us that way.

This has been one of those tenets of Stoicism that has been gathering rust on my tool bench.  It’s a strange one, because from the outside it seems impossible.  But, once you take up the lens, and begin to examine in the world, it sees self-evident.  “Why is this physical affliction happening to me?  Woe is me!” is so entirely different from “this body falls apart, but nothing eternal has been lost.”  It could be, that in looking at my Stoic tools, since I’m sliding into something akin to a well worn pair of shoes, they fit.  I don’t remember finding this as simple a chance in the past as it seems today.

Every being on this planet, and likely in the cosmos, suffers.  Or so it seems to me.  All life requires death, and so far as we know, only humanity has the meta-awareness to observe this.  And so the suffering *means* something to us.  You can see pain in a dog, and you can see learned behaviors of avoidance, anxiety, etc.  This is often heartbreaking to many of us.  Yet, that same dog sets those signals of emotion aside when his favorite human enters the room.  He’s not plagued by the thing once it has left, or been replaced by something else.

That seems to be a human characteristic.

Yet, we too can set those aside, especially when they have been incorrectly assented to.  Is this pain of the leg an evil?  No, it’s a pain of the leg.  The fact that I cannot walk well today means I’ll be a bit slower.  I no longer hear well, so I ask for some help, I use tools to aid me, I learn a new language, and make new friends as well.

That’s been something I haven’t discussed on the blog much at all, but I’ve been having some changes in my hearing as a result of childhood and genetic issues.  As such, I’ve been wearing amplifiers, learning American Sign Language, and making new friends in the Deaf community.  Such is life, it sometimes takes us down unexpected paths.

I mourned the loss of my hearing for some time, quite a while actually.  I quit going out to see friends, I got angry and bitter.  Now I have some projects to work on, increasing my proficiency with ASL, meeting new people, and learning to navigate what is becoming to me, a new normal.

Hopefully I can be the rock Marcus wishes for himself, while the waves crash around it only to fall still once more.  And all of us making progress can pick back up a tool we’ve laid aside.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book IV, Chapters 32-44

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“Very soon you will be dead; but even yet you are not single-minded, nor above disquiet; not yet unapprehensive of harm from without; not yet charitable to all men, not persuaded that to do justly is the only wisdom.”

— 37.

Frequently, in this section I think sarcastically, “Jeeze, Marcus, just @ me already…”  I’ve been in a weird spot lately, and for some reason I haven’t been using the tools I developed through my Stoic practice to handle them.  I have start over.  I’m fairly aware that progress is a thing that slips if we’re not careful, and I more fully understand Hadot’s description of it as tension.  I let loose of it, and it’s slipped away.

It’s possible that such a phase was needed, required for what comes next.  I will take it as such.

In these sections, Marcus admonishes himself and then offers the solution.  The turmoil and lack of progress that we often see in our lives is accepted, and then he moves on with a Stoic therapy.  I see hints of Heraclitus’ river, and Marcus’ own View from Above.  He describes the machinations and activities of generations, each arising, and then falling away, to leave only fossils in the minds of men.

Yet he takes solace in the connection that he has with the cosmos, with God, if you will.  His part to play, his duties, his chance for virtue; these bring some comfort in the face of an eternity which quickly wipes clean the slate of our lives.

It’s probably because Marcus was an emperor, and I am not, but I do not take the same comfort in the yoking of duties as Marcus does.  Oftentimes, those seem to me to be just another, more complicated form of distraction or preoccupation.  Maybe if I had the fate of the west on my shoulders, I’d feel differently.

But I don’t.

We know a lot about Diogenes, who made himself a paragon example, that some fraction of it might take root in the minds of his fellows.  But we (or at least I) know less of the Cynics which came after, those who are often described as fashionable non-conformists, watered down, and haranguing the citizens.  Do they know they were watered down?  Was it a ploy?  A way out?  Or did they think they were doing their best, or even to improve?

Ah, yes.  Well, those questions are not answerable, but their parallel can be seen in our School, too.  Are we watered down?  If we veer, have we improved or faltered?  Are we brave enough to ask?  Hard to tell until we get there.  I might veer a bit, we’ll see.

“To be in the process of change is not an evil, any more than to be in the product of change is a good.”

— 42.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book IV, Chapters 21-31

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“And now hear what consolations can be offered on the other side by one who has not embraced the doctrines either of the Cynics, or of the Stoics—-who only differ from the Cynics by a shirt…”

— Juvenal, Satire XIII.16


Staniforth cites this section, as Marcus references it in Chapter 30.  However, the Roman Satirist may seem to be incorrect in regards to man’s social nature at first brush, right?  They Cynics are known misanthropes!  However, I think we’ll see a bit more similarity than might at first be apparent.

As I mentioned previous, I’ve been reading a good bit from Navia on Diogenes of Sinope and classical Cynicism.  One of the claims we see about the Hellenistic Cynics, and their paragon even more so, is what can appear to be a hatred of humanity.  Diogenes’ constant haranguing of the people, his disregard for social obligation, his lewd gestures and action all might lead us to suspect that The Dog hated people.  But this is the shallowest of readings.

Image result for diogenes of sinopeIf Diogenes had hated humanity, why would he have spent his entire philosophical life among them, providing an example in extremis of what was sufficient for virtue?  Why would he search for an honest, or true human?  Why would he try to make them better than they were, and better even than they saw themselves?

The only reason that makes even the slightest bit of sense to me is because he loved them.  He loved people.  We find ourselves more frustrated and caught up in the happenings of our family and friends than we do the passerby, or random story on the news.  Why?  Because we love these, and thus their faults, misgivings, and suffering is the more poignant to us.

I suspect the same is true for Diogenes.

Marcus constantly reminds himself, in essence, to love and to act out that love for others.  To accept the role the cosmos has ordained, and to educated or put up with those who fail.  Ironically, Diogenes must have already achieved this love, albeit expressed in a … strange fashion.

Image result for marcus aureliusThe Cynic, then, instead of being an asocial hermit finds herself in the thick of it as much as a Stoic!  She’s trying for many of the same social benefits.  The difference then comes down to the doctrine of indifferent things, which the Stoics espouse and the Cynics deny.

Despite Juvenal’s tongue being planted firmly in cheek, it’s actually a pithy distillation of a doctrinal difference, but what’s more the point is all of the other similarities.

So, whether or not you’re shirtless, this obligation to social activity is just as important.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book IV, Chapters 5-20

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Whew, there’s quite the spread of topics here.  We’ll stick to one topic: the beautiful, ὁ κάλως.  This word can often be interchangeably translated as “good” or “beautiful.”  Marcus is stating the position that beauty (read: goodness) is intrinsic, and nothing is made better or worse by praise.

I’m reminded of Epictetus’ injunction:

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion 13

This seems to be the rougher side of the coin to what Marcus is reminding himself.  Most folks see the teachings of Epictetus echoed in Marcus, but just as the figure cut by Diogenes is an almost hyperbolic example of Socratic teaching: Marcus often seems to be the applied version of the more “extreme” Epictetan example.

It continues to impress me how these folks 2,000 years separate from us have such a keen understanding of human nature.  Of course we will seem different from the average when we’re seeking to right ourselves.  Of course that will be a hard pressure to resist.  Of course that will elicit both scorn at the outset and potentially after a time admiration as well.  Of course we must prepare ourselves for both of these impressions.

We do this by building in ourselves the skill of judicious discrimination of impressions.  Whether it is praise or scorn, if the feedback does not relay accurate moral information to us, it is nothing.  So set aside the beauty of the horse, the scorn of the passerby, and the fawning praise of others:  because we’ve got work to do.  Work on ourselves, work for the good.

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If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon. Thank you for your readership.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book IV, Chapters 1-4

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One of the things Marcus discusses today is a term which we inherit from Diogenes of Sinope, cosmopolitanism.  During his lifetime, citizenship in a city was a defining characteristic for Hellenes, in much the same way as nation-states are today.  When asked where his allegiance lay, he responded that he was a citizen of the world.  A bold assertion then and now.

The Stoics inherited this doctrine from the Cynics, and Marcus uses it to remind himself that all rational creatures share in the logos.  That men do evil not of their own accord but through ignorance, and that he must work with his fellows without regard for honor or reputation.

He gives himself reminders that he can, at any time, retreat into himself, and take shelter from the world should he need it.  That he doesn’t need to actually flee from this problems of life.  He notes that if his ruling faculty is in accord with nature, even these problems become of the fodder for progress.

A group I recently was exposed to by a follower of the blog and Patron is Stoics In Action.  They are trying to apply Stoicism to modern problems, there is even a recent post on cosmopolitanism.  I noted earlier this week, that it is a non-trivial problem to apply Stoicism in a way which doesn’t simply use it to prop up preexisting political commitments.  I hope they’re successful.

One of the models we get from the classics comes from Hierocles, and deals with the doctrine of Affinity/Familiarity, or in the Greek οἰκείωσις.  This process involves imagining that there are concentric circles of affinity, with each individual at the center.  We have self, then family, then townsfolk, then countrymen, then foreigners, then all rational beings.  The process of οἰκείωσις is to treat each of these groups as if they are at least one circle closer to us.  So the benefit of the family is treated as our own benefit, and at the far end, all people are treated as if they are our fellow citizens and countrymen.  It’s a useful, quick-and-dirty model for helping to shape and think about ethical behavior.  You can see that the Stoics In Action folks have used this for their logo, which seems to me to be appropriate.

If this kind of project interests you, swing by and see what they’re doing.

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If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon. Thank you for your readership.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 12-16

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One of the things that came across to me today in the readings is the urgency Marcus feels for progress.  I understand that on a deep level.  It is both motivating and slightly disturbing to add up the years which have gone by, and compare them to the likely number ahead (knowing these aren’t guaranteed in the slightest).

I’m reminded of the drowning man metaphor in Cicero:

“For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already … similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.” 

Cicero, De Finibus, IV.48

Image result for drowningI’m reminded of this for two reasons, one being that the Stoics denied intermediary states between virtue and vice, thus the depth of the water to the man is in irrelevant: he’s drowning regardless.  But also in a way I don’t think I’ve seen anyone express before.

Existential need.

I’m not sure if this is a game children play everywhere, so this may not be as widely understood as I hope.  I’ll try to be particularly descriptive just in case.  Here in Appalachia we have a good many underground tunnels on interstates and highways, some of them quite long.  There’s a decent sized one, for instance, coming into Pittsburgh PA on 376, The Fort Pitt Tunnel.

Image result for fort pitt tunnelAs a kid, and if I’m honest often as an adult, we’d play a game to see who could hold their breath for the entirety of the tunnel as passengers in the car.  The mind knows it can breath at any time, you just have to give up and lose.  You also know that you’re not really in any danger.  Nevertheless, about 2/3 of the way through, an existential panic creeps in.  The muscles around the ribs burn with the effort of stillness.  A pressure builds in the head.  You can trick this a little by exhaling slightly, in little controlled puffs and not inhaling.  Tricking the system into thinking it’s breathing again.  But this only buys you an extra couple of seconds.  If you’re here, you’re already close to your breaking point.  If you can’t make out features at the end of the tunnel, and you’re puffing out, you’re not going to make it.

Existential need.

The need to breathe, the fear of suffocation is an ingrained and deep sort of response.  For those who are more than dabbling in philosophy, I think the urgency that is felt is akin to this:  we see that we’re drowning, we know it.  We also know, like the children in the tunnel, that failure or success is up to us.  That drive towards progress, then that Marcus notes, has something much closer to the experience of the actively drowning man than the conclusion might promise, in either direction.  It’s that edge-of-panic need to ease the problem.

In my experience, once a certain difficult-to-articulate-amount of progress has been achieved, even this desire for progress itself is tampered.  But, backsliding is always possible.  So possible.

“When you relax your attention for a while, do not fancy you will recover it whenever you please; but remember this, that because of your fault of today your affairs must necessarily be in a worse condition in future occasions.”

Epictetus Discourses IV.12.1

In my own experience, this is extremely accurate.  In some ways, the backslide feels like you’re even worse off than when you began.  Typically, the drowning metaphor of Cicero is seen as depressing, it is about drowning, afterall.  Whether you’re an inch away from the surface or 100 feet down doesn’t matter, drowned is drowned.  That might be depressing if you’re the one who’s an inch down.  But if you’re 100 feet down, it’s less so.  In fact it may even be empowering.

Progress is progress, and there’s one way direction to go.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

—Marcus, Meditations, V.20

 

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If you’ve found some value in the posts here, I humbly request you consider supporting the blog on Patreon. Thank you for your readership.


This post is part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Marcus’Meditations.