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.

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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 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 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.

MMRP: Book I, Chapters 8-11

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Book I continues in Marcus’ exercise in gratitude, specifically of teachers and mentors.  The thing which stuck out at me for this section is that these teachers are in the past, but they appear to be quite a ways in the past, rather than just a year or even five ago at the time of the writing.

It’s been my experience that I didn’t fully recognize the teachers who made a lasting impression until much later.  The same is true for family members.  The formative effect of my grandfather wasn’t apparent to me until I saw his words, thoughts, and actions as things of myself as well.

The seeds of the people we become are planted deep and early, and it seems only when the bows have grown heartily that the core nature of it visible.

I mentioned to my wife recently that it seemed a great loss that she never got to meet my grandfather.  My mother overheard this and said, “Kevin makes sense if you knew my Dad.” This caught me by surprise, for as this relationship has become apparent to me, I was unaware that it was apparent to others.  Which is rather silly, in retrospect.

I wonder if Marcus had similar experiences, looking back on a life lived, and seeing the landmarks only afterwards, the people and beliefs which guided him to where he now stood?  I think that this must be the case when I re-read Book I.

 


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