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.

MMRP: Book I, Chapters 1-7

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Today kicks off Michel Daw’s project of the reading of Marcus’ Meditations. You can find the pdf of the plan here.

Book I is an exercise in gratitude. Marcus thanks and gives credit to those who helped shaped the man he has become. I begins first with family, noting their specific contribution to his rearing and formation. He moves on to teachers and philosophers, who helped inculcate in him early that philosophy is thing to do, a way of life, and not merely analytical and rhetorical exercise.

For this reading plan, I’m reading a new-to-me translation by Maxwell Staniforth (1964). Staniforth notes that the title of the work, which was never intended to be read by others let alone published globally and in many languages, is titled “Meditations” in the English world solely by convention. In the Greek (in which it was written, not Latin) it is ΤΩΝ ΕΙΣ ΕΑΥΤΟΝ, or “to himself” sometimes “The Emperor to Himself.”

Koine Greek was the language of philosophy in Rome, with a few key exceptions (Cicero, Seneca, et al.) Marcus was clearly proficient in the language, and the whole of the book is a compendium of philosophical exercises, or spiritual exercises if you like: ὑπομνήματα. This word, ὑπομνήματα, means something like “notes” or “reminders.”


I will begin this reading of Meditations with a Book I of my own.

To my grandfather and father I owe the appreciation of the example of hard work and the meaning of family ties. These men set an example in this arena which I have never met, but which was so great that even when I see myself fall short, I stand out among my colleagues and coworkers. Also to my grandfather, the love of music and stories.

To my mother I owe the belief that life must be meaningful, that the all-too-common settling for the average is a danger to be avoided. To her I also attribute the structure of my understanding of things divine; as well as my love of reading, writing, and great literature.

Two teachers of mine stand out in memory from my formative years: Dr. Seitz and Mr. Fields. These two provided me with the example of excellent instructors, passionate orators, and genuinely caring men. In an environment which is not overly conducive to such things, these two changed my perspective on more than just lecture material.

Two more recent teachers who have helped to shape my efforts in philosophy, carefully correcting errors and misapprehensions but also knowing when to step back and let me solve a problem or grow in my time: Erik Wiegardt and Chris Fisher.

To Yannos, Brendan, Germano and Chaz for always being willing soundboards, mutual advisers, friends, and teachers.

To several close friends: for supporting me and helping me rebuild when I myself could not see a way out of the ruins and ashes of my external endeavors.


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