MMRP: Book III, Chapters 5-7

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Image result for greek virtue

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.

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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.

What now?

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.

Image result for agora ancient greece

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

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 3-4

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Image result for heraclitusWe have two topics today, both dealing with speculation and the color of our thoughts. In the first, Marcus lists some of the paragons of the mind on classical antiquity: Hippocrates, Heraclitus, et al. Despite how these contributed to the social weal, they passed away. There’s a tinge of irony here, in some of these deaths as well: the manner or context of their dying contrasted with the focus of their study, or speculation.  Marcus is using this a meditation on death and on meaning.  We might spend a significant portion of our time speculating on (for his concern and ours) virtue, yet the sand continues to trickle through the hour glass, and we have no idea how much is left.

Heraclitus’ work has only come down to us as a series of fragments, and indirectly as the underpinning for Stoic physics.  If you are not familiar with these, I would recommend them to you.  It’s a refreshing change pace, and for me personally seems to speak to the parts of the mind that respond to symbol and allegory.  It has a sort of Zen or Daoist feel to it which I can appreciate.

The second topic today is a bit more practical, and speaks to the quality of our own thoughts. Impressions are presented to the mind’s ruling faculty without effort or control. How we handle those, however, is within our control. This recurring theme in Stoic practice: internal dialogue, is how we process and handle our internal environment. The phrase “a rich internal life” is often used, and this is one window into that. Most of the time, if I’m not consciously working on monitoring my thoughts, the internal dialogue seems to go of its own volition, like a program, running through subroutines and programs that I’ve encoded through decades of judgments.

We must remember, however, that our emotions are (either) the result of judgments or judgments themselves.  I’m inclined to the former interpretation.  So monitoring this stream, and making changes there, is incredibly important.  Eking out the tiny bit of time between an impression and the result of a faulty judgment is difficult, but it’s way easier in my opinion than correcting a false assent and turning that emotion around.

Marcus is discussing this, albeit from the other end, focusing on what the end should be.  The test he implements is, “if anyone were to ask what we are thinking, that we could respond immediately and honestly.” This is interesting. I suspect many people, myself included, would not always pass this test well.

Epictetus, and thus we can assume Marcus, thought very highly of (true) Cynics, even going so far as to hold Diogenes of Sinope up as a possible example of a Sage.  Cynicism is the motherschool to Stoicism: Zeno of Citium studied under Crates the Cynic (amongst others), who studied under Diogenes.  Diogenes is likely to have studied under Antisthenes (this is debated somewhat), who was a direct associate of Socrates.  So not only do we get many of the core tenets and practices, but our Socratic lineage as well comes via the Dog.  Lately, I’ve been reading a good bit on classical Cynicism, I have to books from Luis Navia sitting on my desk here right now.  One of the core positions of Cynicism, which Stoicism inherited in some form, we can see repeated in Marcus’ test above.

Image result for diogenes of sinopeOne of the traits (we may go even so far as to say virtues) of the Cynic is shamelessness or ἀναίδεια in the Greek.  Although Diogenes was held in relatively high esteem by the early Christian church, they drew a line here, generally, and didn’t think overly well of the practice.  Diogenes’ line of reasoning is, that anything which is in accordance with nature cannot be evil (the Stoics would agree), and anything which isn’t evil has no need to be hidden.  Ah, we see here the seeds of Marcus’ reasoning then, too!

Although for Diogenes and his peculiar sort of public ministry, this meant living, sleeping, eating, and “doing the work of Artemis and Demeter” in the public view; Marcus takes this from a practical standpoint and applies it in a more speculative way.  Rather, he uses it as a thought experiment.  “Were all of these things that I hide away visible to all, would I feel shame about them?”

You may not need to live outside in a box at your local farmer’s market, but if all those people did have a peek into your life, how would you feel?  Would you feel some pride in yourself, neutral, or maybe shamed?  The Cynic takes this as an empirical one:  she tests it out, and let’s the shame fall away from those things in accordance with nature and ceases to do those which are not.  The Stoic has some more wiggle room, and can imagine the result and change accordingly.  Although, even Seneca suggests periodic dips (Letter 18, 508) into the more extreme methods of the Cynics, it’s worth remembering:

“Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”

— Seneca’s Moral Letters, XVIII.7

To return to what is shameful, It is interesting that we intuitively know what things we do (or would) hide away.  You can see toddler will hide, lie, and do other things which are to their advantage.  Yet they show no concern for their body functions, modes of dress or eating, etc.  They do not hide what is natural, but are very quick to learn to hide what may be immoral.

As adults, some of what we cloister away is for modesty’s sake or social expectations for our time and place (not a concern for a Diogenes), but others for rightfully acquired shame.  It’s this second class that we can work on, and it’s this which Marcus is setting up for himself.

Image result for diogenes lampWe can take the Cynic ἀναίδεια in a Stoic fashion.  We can change or remove those behaviors and thoughts that would lead to a rightful feeling of shame, correct them before they work their way out into speech and deed.   Which of our thoughts would rightfully feel shameful about?  These are the things to work on.

This then is a lesson from the Tub that Marcus and we can benefit from.  Maybe we can work on being the true or honest person Diogenes looks for with his lamp?

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

MMRP: Book III, Chapters 1-2

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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.”

Image result for japanese gold crack potteryHe 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.


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

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.