Leading stoic surprisingly not the life of the party

Marcus Aurelius repeats himself. He doesn’t use the same words, but he circles the same handful of ideas over and over. His Meditations contains twelve books, and across them he returns again and again to the natural order of the universe, the inevitability of death, the transient nature of existence, and the rightness of his reasoning. He speaks to himself, an imperative you will, and by the end of the book there can be no doubt that he is at least in part writing these things down because he’s still convincing himself they’re true.

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome for nearly twenty years around AD 200, and his Meditations are strictly personal writings that aren’t quite a diary and aren’t quite an affirmation journal, occupying a space somewhere in between. Across the pages the texture of his days and their challenges certainly comes through, but the narrative is essentially a set of reminders he gives himself regarding how to live his life. Do your duty, even when it’s boring. Be patient with stupid people. Remember that your life is insignificant.

It’s easy to see why he is revered. He’s about as far from the Caesars of Suetonius as can be imagined. He was exacting with himself, striving to achieve a lofty philosophical ideal, while at the same time struggling with his own limitations as a human and his obvious disinterest in the duties in front of him. Here is the most powerful man in the world living as humbly as he can, dealing with his responsibilities with as much care as he can muster despite the vast annoyingness of most people he must deal with, trusting in the providence of the gods to deliver him no more suffering than he can bear until he is winked out of existence and forgotten. Add in a regular supply of whiskey and it sounds like most of the working men I know.

Marcus Aurelius practiced a form of stoicism, which as near as I can tell is pretty similar to the Vulcans of Star Trek. A stoic believes in seeing things as they truly are, which means freeing oneself of material indulgences and pretty much all emotions. He recognizes that emotions are natural, but also that they’re a waste of time and tend to obscure the truth from the person feeling them, so they’re best ignored. I don’t think the stoics would get much out of psychotherapy.

This sounds foreign to me. Right out of the gate he starts by listing lessons he learned from other people’s behaviors, saying, “And to be the same in all circumstances—intense pain, the loss of a child, chronic illness.” Which is an extraordinary state to aspire to, if one even could, and as I read through the book I kept coming back to the question of why one would want to? I could maybe see this as a kind of Buddhist serenity, but it just sounds to me like indifference—and, realistically, just not something a normal person will be able pull off.

Marcus believes in Nature: that things were ordered by the gods, providence, and that it is our job to play our role in the proceedings, using our own character to guide our behavior toward our natural duty. He is a Roman through and through, and there is no need to mention the importance of duty because it is so self-evident. Which is frankly pretty nice to hear coming from the emperor, who could pretty much fuck around if he wanted to and chop off the head of any complainers.

Still, he struggles with this core belief throughout. Because if the universe isn’t ordered by providence, then it is just a bunch of random atoms bouncing around. And he admits that he doesn’t know, which befits someone whose faith is built upon reason. And that idea—providence or atoms?—returns again and again as he contemplates death. He knows that the next life will either be some new existence also ordered by the gods, or else it will be nothing as his atoms gets spread back through the world. Either way, nothing to worry about!

He also believes that perceptions are key to freedom. Everything comes down to how you look at a thing, and he is a strong believer in one’s ability to rise above slights and injuries by perceiving them as inevitable products of nature—as he puts it, you should no more get angry at a fig tree for secreting juice. His command to himself: “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed.” So I guess if a dog pees on your leg, well, that’s just what dogs do. He has a low opinion of people, and yet his role required him to be in constant contact with all kinds of people, so he spent huge amounts of energy insulating himself from their idiocy. No word on the dog pee.

And yet despite his low opinion of people, he also believes that they are inherently good, and that you can count on them to always at least try to do the right thing. The problem is that they’re perpetually confused as to what the right thing might be. I like this idea, that “no one does the wrong thing deliberately,” just as I liked it when Aristotle said it. But between the three of us, I’m still not quite convinced it’s true.

In his effort to see the world as it truly is, he has a pretty harsh view of the reality of life itself, seeing the mind as a spark of divinity that he possesses and cherishes, but which rides around in a sack of rotting meat: “A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries.” And with that in mind, he constantly reminds himself that death is inevitable, nothing to worry about, and in many ways a sweet relief from the suffering of this world.

And life itself for him consists only of the present moment. He likes to contemplate the vast infinity of time stretching behind and before us, using this as a technique to reduce his stress with the reminder of our collective insignificance. Which gives you the sense that Marcus wasn’t exactly the life of the party. He believes that despite being surrounded by time, we only ever get to experience a single moment: now. A moment which doesn’t amount to anything in the long run anyway. And yet, for all its dubious significance, Marcus is all about maximizing the value and impact of this moment, the perpetual now that we are all graced with. He exhorts himself to work, to avoid distraction, to live as if today is the last day, and to rise to his duty with all the energy he can muster.

Although he is a perpetual downer in this book, it’s hard not to be picked up by the whole thing, his inherent optimism and insistent belief in his own ability to rise to any challenge he faces. We each have our own ideal that we pursue, and we each get beaten down by the world. And just like Marcus we have to reconcile these two on a daily basis, for the rest of our lives, every moment we get to live. It isn’t always pretty, but, as Marcus tells himself over and over, it’s the only option we’ve got.

According to Marcus, soon enough this will all be over and everyone you know will be dead and forgotten, but he gives us an exercise to make the most of the present moment: pretend you just died and your life is now over; let all the things that seemed so important and urgent slide away; none of it matters, because you’ve been winked out of existence. But oh, wait, here’s a reprieve: you’re alive again. Now: start living the way you’re supposed to.

Okay, go.

Excerpt from Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

2.1 Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet to-day inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of the man himself who does wrong is akin to my own (not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism.

5.20 In one relation man is the nearest creature to ourselves, so far as we must do them good and suffer them. But so far as they are obstacles to my peculiar duties, man becomes something indifferent to me as much as sun or wind or injurious beast. By these some action might be hindered, but they are not hindrances to my impulse and disposition, because of my power of reservation and adaptation; for the understanding adapts and alters every obstacle to action to suit its object, and a hindrance to a given duty becomes a help, an obstacle in a given path a furtherance.

6.15 Some things are hastening to be, others to have come and gone, and a part of what is coming into being is already extinct. Flux and change renew the world incessantly, as the unbroken passage of time makes boundless eternity ever young. In this river, therefore, on which he cannot stand, which of these things that race past him should a man greatly prize? As though he should begin to set his heart on one of the little sparrows that fly past, when already it has gone away out of his sight. Truly the life of every man is itself as fleeting as the exhalation of spirit from his blood or the breath he draws from the atmosphere. For just as it is to draw in a single breath and to return it, which we do every moment, so is it to render back the whole power of respiration, which you acquired but yesterday or the day before, at birth, to that other world from which you first drew it in.

6.48 Whenever you desire to cheer yourself, think upon the merits of those who are alive with you; the energy of one, for instance, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, of another some other gift. For nothing is so cheering as the images of the virtues shining in the character of contemporaries, and meeting so far as possible in a group. Therefore you should keep them ready to your hand.

8.32 You must plan your life, one action at a time, and be content if each acquires its own end as best it can; and that it should acquire its end, no one at all can prevent you. ‘But some external obstacle will be in the way.’ None to prevent action with justice, temperance, and due reflection. ‘But possibly some other activity will be hindered.’ Still, by meeting the actual obstacle with resignation and good-temperedly altering your course to what is granted you, a new action is at once substituted, which will fit into the plan of which we are speaking.

8.35 As each reasonable creature receives the rest of his abilities from the Nature of the Whole, so have we received this ability, too, from her. Just as she converts every obstacle and resistance, puts it into its place in the order of necessity and makes it a part of herself, so, too, the reasonable creature can make every obstacle material for himself and employ it for whatever kind of purpose he has set out upon.

9.32  You have the power to strip off many superfluities which trouble you and are wholly in your own judgement; and you will make a large room at once for yourself by embracing in your thought the whole Universe, grasping ever-continuing Time and pondering the rapid change in the parts of each object, how brief the interval from birth to dissolution, and the time before birth a yawning gulf even as the period after dissolution equally boundless.

Public domain. Translated by A.S.L. Farwuharson.

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