Meditations, book VI

temple of Castor and Pollux at Rome ForumWe are half way through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at this point. The second entry in book VI is perhaps the quintessential example of Stoic attitude of endurance:

“Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm, if you are doing your duty; and whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else.”

I don’t know about you, but I seem to detect a subtle sense of humor in the way Marcus puts it, though it is more likely that he was just writing in a straightforward matter (to himself, remember that this was his private diary).

At #11 he advices to return to what is important whenever one is disturbed by circumstances, the Stoic version of mindfulness, i.e., constant awareness of one’s priorities in life, and attention to the here and now. (Epictetus famously used the analogy of a captain at the helm of a ship: if he gets distracted even for a moment, a wreck is very likely.) At #16 Marcus counsels against pursuing fame, one of his recurrent themes. And at #18 he returns to that idea once more, with one of my favorite passages in the whole Meditations (again, I detect some irony in the phrasing, but perhaps not):

“How strangely men act. They will not praise those who are living at the same time and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on.”

At #21 there is another splendid sentence, this one on the rationality of changing one’s mind when need be:

“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.”

One of the ongoing discussions among modern Stoics is the extent to which one has to accept Providence and a teleological view of the universe, which was certainly popular among ancient Stoics. I have written about this before, but I have also began paying attention to the ancient sources whenever they say something that may be relevant to this particular topic. I found that Marcus often expresses an attitude of what we today might call agnosticism, implying or even directly stating that it doesn’t matter if one believes in divine providence (remember that for the Stoics “god” was nature herself) or in just atoms and chaos (the Epicurean view). Here is one such passage:

“Alexander the Macedonian and his groom were brought to the same state by death; for either they were received among the same seminal principles of the universe, or they were alike dispersed among the atoms.”

Marcus also often took what we call the “cosmic” perspective on things, to remind himself of the small importance of everyday human affairs, something that has become a standard spiritual exercise among modern Stoics. Here is an example, from #36:

“Asia and Europe are corners of the universe: all the sea a drop in the universe; Athos a little clod of the universe: all the present time is a point in eternity. All things are little, changeable, perishable.”

Another important Stoic concept that we find in Meditations VI is that of Stoic cosmopolitanism, expressed here at #44:

“My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.”

Let me conclude with a bit from the end of #47 and the beginning of #48, where Marcus is first stating what is really important in life, and then reminds himself of what is delightful in one’s existence:

“One thing here is worth a great deal: to pass your life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men. When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.”

7 thoughts on “Meditations, book VI

  1. I was reading Epictetus’ Handbook last night – another analogy I love is treating life like a banquet; when dishes are being handed round, you neither grasp for them when they haven’t reached you, nor hold onto them when it’s your turn to pass them on. You take from and enjoy them whenever they arrive for only as much as is your fill.

    Those last quotations you cited from Marcus present something I’ve been struggling with – how to strike a balance between a benevolent disposition and justice? I’m particularly thinking of when people close to us do things that hurt us, we have a preference to maintain love for these people, but mightn’t such benevolence be an invitation for them to take further advantage because they see the consequences aren’t severe? The best I could think is that we have to assess the intentions for their wrongdoing – if they have reasons other than self-interest for their wrongdoing, it’s unlikely that they would seek to take advantage of good-will and we should be benevolent as it is best for all. If, on the other hand, they did wrong because of self-interest and they WOULD take all the advantage they can, it still remains in our interest to maintain benevolence for our own peace of mind, but we should perhaps begin to view these people differently. I think Epictetus put it better:

    “If you want to make progress, reject such thoughts as: ‘if I don’t punish my slave-boy, he’ll turn out badly.’ … for it is better that your slave should be bad than that you should be unhappy. Make a start, then, with small things. A drop of oil is spilled, a little wine is stolen; say to yourself, ‘Such is the price at which equanimity is bought; such is the price that one pays for peace of mind.’ … When you summon your slave-boy, keep in mind that he may not obey, and even if he does, he may not do what you want; but he is hardly so well-placed that it depends on him whether you’re to enjoy peace of mind.”

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  2. Massimo, I have a question: could “a teleological view of the universe” through “prime cause” (Aristotle) simply be seen as the effect of evolution on this planet, or did the Stoics believe that it implied intention toward a particular (although unknowable to us) purpose?


  3. vienna,

    the Stoics were teleological in the sense they thought what happens in the universe has a point, in the great scheme of things. But I’m not sure about purpose more broadly, because according to Stoic cosmology the universe ends in a great conflagration, only to start again exactly as before.

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  4. Ah, so… no nihilistic (or deeply skeptical) Stoics? I wonder how Nietzsche could have been a true nihilist and also uttered “amor fati” with a Stoic-type perspective from Epictetus. So far in all my studies of Stoicism, this Telos thing would be the one deal breaker for me.
    I guess I will have to find a way to make the two concepts co-exist, since I can’t believe this existence really has any point at all. Isn’t simply being here right now enough of a point?

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  5. vienna,

    most modern Stoics — and certainly yours truly — have done away with the teleology, because it does not seem compatible with modern science. The ancient Stoics themselves, for instance Seneca, were very clear that should new generations discover new truths the wise person would change his/her views accordingly…

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  6. @Callum Hackett:

    “If you want to make progress, reject such thoughts as: ‘if I don’t punish my slave-boy, he’ll turn out badly.’ … for it is better that your slave should be bad than that you should be unhappy.”

    I think this kind of a situation involving wrong-doing or betrayal by a person close to you needs more scrutiny. If, by constantly giving the benefit of the doubt to somebody, despite all evidence to the contrary, is going to lead to a positive outcome for you, then by all means do it. If the loss is not too great, if it’s only a matter of spilled oil or white lies, one definitely ought to learn to keep calm and let these things slide.

    But at some point, the loss becomes eventually greater and can threaten your material well-being. There is also the difficult matter of judging the effect of constant betrayals on the long-term happiness of the offender. I am thinking specifically of children, who sometimes innocently do wrong, like ‘steal’ someone else’s toy without realising why that could be wrong. Such behaviour, left to itself, might cause problems for the child later on. It is in the child’s best interest that we correct it. It may cause discomfort in the short run – confrontations are never easy – but in the long run, there will be a net gain for all parties involved.

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  7. “If you want to make progress, reject such thoughts as: ‘if I don’t punish my slave-boy, he’ll turn out badly.’ … for it is better that your slave should be bad than that you should be unhappy.”

    Just substitute the word ’employee’ and this can be seen to be a very modern dilemma as well. Slavery has many gradations. In today’s slave plantations(modern corporations) benevolence is also in short supply. I have been a fascinated observer of the process that all power tends to corrupt(Lord Acton) and have seen the process unfold in myself as I moved up through the ranks.

    It is in part the intoxication of power, in part intense frustration at sloth, incompetence and lack of will and in part the result of the huge pressures one is also subjected to from those above you in the slave hierarchy.

    What halted the process in myself was not benevolence, but a paper I discovered, titled something like “Manager as Coach”. It pointed out that the coach of a sports team did not have sporadic performance reviews and yearly targets. That the coach obtained results not by threats and punishment but by careful observation of form and by continuous, rigorous training to improve form. The article argued that the modern manager should behave more like a sports team coach than the traditional punitive, threatening manager.

    This discovery was transformative and highly effective. HR were aghast when I threw traditional yearly performance reviews out the window. After all, how good would your sports team be if you reviewed their performance once a year? Training is a continuous process and not an intermittent judgemental process.

    I love the quote above, framing the issue as a dichotomous punishment/benevolence issue, because it illustrates how often we are trapped by false framing. It takes imagination and stimulus to escape the false framing trap. In my case it was the stimulus of an article that posed a third alternative, continuous training/review of the sports coach kind.

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