Continuing my reading of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations we have arrived at book IV. Near the beginning of it, we are reminded that “it is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. For there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul,” Marcus’ own way of shutting out the troubling external world (it ain’t easy to run an empire!) and refocus his thoughts and energy. Good advice also for contemporary hectic life, especially in a large city like New York, where I live.
He then goes on to restate a standard Stoic doctrine, the roots of which can easily be traced to Socrates: “with what are you discontented? With the badness of men? Recall to your mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily.” There are actually two important ideas here: on the one hand, the startling Socratic notion that people do wrong only out of ignorance, not on purpose (rooted in the observation that people usually do not claim or boost of being evil — they just rationalize the bad stuff they do). On the other hand, the more distinctively Stoic position that the point of living for a rational animal (i.e., for human beings) is to be part of a society where we all help each other. This is the famous discipline of action, associated with the idea of Stoic philanthropy, as well as with the virtue of justice, which in fact is explicitly mentioned in the quote above.
Marcus then reminds himself (this, after all, was his personal diary) that it is senseless to be attached to external things, like applause and praise. He takes the cosmic perspective, meditating on the vast amount of time before and after one’s existence in order to appreciate the fickleness of externals, concluding that “things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; so our perturbations come only from our inner opinions.”
I depart from Marcus at #10, where he says: “note that everything that happens, happens justly, and if you observe carefully, you will find it to be so.” I observed it very carefully, and disagree. I therefore re-interpret the basic idea underlying this and similar passages in light of modern science and my own atheism, whereupon I would say: “note that everything that happens, happens because of cause and effect, and if you observe carefully, you will find it to be so.” Obviously, such re-interpretation takes away any comfort in cosmic justice that the ancient Stoics might have had, but I am convinced that if they had had the opportunity to understand the world as we do today they would have readily agreed with my modification. The extent to which such move undermines the whole project of Stoicism is, of course, debatable. On my part, I obviously think it doesn’t.
At#17-18 Marcus comes back to commenting on the urgency of a morally virtuous life. After telling himself that he should not act as if he were to live ten thousand years, since death always hangs nearby, he says: “look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.” I find this one of the most appealing aspects of Stoicism: the idea of relying on an inner, properly calibrated, moral compass, regardless of what others think or say of you. Of course, Stoicism has this in common with a number of virtue ethical approaches (even outside the Greco-Roman world, think Confucianism, for instance), as well as religions.
Again Marcus mentions the shortness of life at #26, just after having given himself the advice to live a minimalist existence, “since the greatest part of what we say and do is unnecessary, dispensing with such activities affords a man more leisure and less uneasiness.”
At #49 he formulates a version of another crucial Stoic doctrine, the discipline of desire, or Stoic acceptance: “‘I am unhappy, because this has happened to me.’ Not so: say, ‘I am happy, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.’” This may sound fatalistic in a defeating fashion (a common misunderstanding of Stoicism), but it is simply a consequence of the above mentioned principle of universal causality, in which the Stoics believed. Remember too that Marcus was an emperor, faced with a number of difficult issues that he did his best to address by action, so that he is not advising himself to give up, but rather to accept the outcome of his efforts with equanimity, which he makes explicit shortly thereafter: “remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.”