MMRP: Book IV, Chapters 45-51

Standard

“[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  He’s not plagued by the thing once it has left, or been replaced by something else.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

Standard

“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 III, Chapters 5-7

Standard

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.

Image result for greek citizen

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.

* * *

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.


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

MMRP: Book II, Chapters 12-15

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.