Sunday, 15 September 2013

Bearing One's Lot With Grace

No longer allow this thing that I am to bear ungraciously whatever is allotted for it in the present or lament over whatever is allotted for it in the future.

                                                    Meditations 2:2

     What an unfortunate creature, the man who would grumble against his lot! He at once neither alters it, nor displays any manliness of character. Moreover, he must necessarily be miserable, as his lot is apportioned from without, not from within.   

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Do Not Become A Puppet On A String

No longer allow this thing that I am be pulled about by an unsocial impulse like a puppet on a string.
                                           Meditations 2:2

     In this age that so highly prizes individuality and independence, it is unusual to consider an "unsocial" or "selfish impulse" to be the cause of one's becoming like "a puppet on a string." Whatever other evils such an impulse might bring about, certainly a loss of personal freedom could not be one of them, could it?
     The Stoic, like other classical virtue ethicists, understood that Man is a social creature, a civic animal; and that such an "unsocial impulse," then, is not a natural impulse. Whatever is against Nature is enslaving, not liberating.     

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Do Not Become A Slave

No longer allow this thing that I am to be made a slave.
                                          Meditations 2:2

     For Marcus, the best part of himself is not his body or breath, but his reasoning faculty, his ruling reason. By nature, this portion of man is free and exercises complete autonomy over itself. But it becomes slavish when mingled with Vice, with Passion. The Ruling Faculty, if it is to remain free and not fall into slavery, must deny entry to the Passions. Reason is more powerful than Vice and can always eradicate it, but not while consorting with it.     

Monday, 8 July 2013

Old Man, Rejoice In Your Old Age!

Think about yourself as follows: "You are an old man."
Meditations 2:2

     While I do not deny that a young man can become wise and good, and that Reason is an adequate remedy for the Passions at any age, the old man very obviously has many natural advantages over the youth. He has a certain wisdom that only experience can bring; he is not afflicted by that crusading and (arrogantly) idealistic enthusiasm of the young man; he has learned patience and is slower to anger.
     As for his body, it is weaker and grows tired more easily. In one of his moral epistles, the Roman Stoic Seneca considers this also to be an advantage that the old have over the young. He noted that in his own old age he required only a short period of physical exercise each day as his body tired quickly, which,  happily, allowed him "to return quickly from the body to the mind." The body only grows weaker with age, but the mind, as Seneca himself in that same epistle asserts, grows better with the passing of time. What folly that we would spend more time worrying about and training that which must necessarily weaken with time, while neglecting that which can strengthen continuously if we would only show it some care and attention!   
     But perhaps the greatest advantage that the old man has over the young man is one which Nature Herself has bestowed upon him. She has spared him the greater part the carnal afflictions that he experienced in his youth. But again, what folly that some men would reject this merciful benefit and willingly take drugs meant to give them back the terrible libido of their younger days! 
     The good man lives according to Nature; he does not rage against her. He operates according to the reality of the Universe, not contrary to it. And he accepts that reality, not longing for another one (and one that cannot be). He will say to himself simply 'You are an old man', without adding the clause 'but you would be better off as a young man'.
     Old man, rejoice in your old age! You have tremendous advantages over the young man! Your path to Virtue is shorter and easier than his!    

Monday, 1 July 2013


But as one already dying, disdain the flesh: it is gore, a little bone, and a wreathed pile of sinews, veins, and arteries. Observe the breath, too, what sort of thing it is: mere wind. And never the same wind at that, but every moment belched out and gulped down again. Then, thirdly, there is the Ruling Faculty. 

                                            Meditations 2:2

     For Marcus Aurelius, a person consists of three things: the paltry body, the air he breaths, and the ruling or reasoning faculty that guides him. The ancient Stoics believed that our most basic instinct is towards self-preservation, and thus it is entirely natural to be inclined towards the preservation of all three components.
     We err and act against Nature, however, when we fail to recognize (or forget) that these three elements of us exist in a hierarchical relationship. And many of us (especially in this age of rampant Healthism in the First World nations) commit a graver offence against Nature and against ourselves when we confuse the order of this hierarchy, regarding the most important component lightly, while situating the least important part in its place. 
     This confusion is evidenced by the small fortunes spent on gym memberships and personal trainers, over-priced and quite unnecessary organic foods and all manner of nutritional supplements, and an unhealthy amount of interest in the health of the body at the expense of the health of the soul and refinement of the mind. Not only does this over-evalutation of the body draw attention away from the reasoning faculty, but it even harms it. Far from helping to eradicate the Passions, it excites them, provoking in us not the Virtue of Bravery, but the Vices of Fear and Anxiety. 
     An inordinate concern for one's health is not the only way we disturb this hierarchy. A man may show little concern for his bodily health, but still live only for bodily pleasure and comfort. Today's gluttons call  themselves "foodies"; the womanizer, though having succumbed to womanish Passions, thinks himself manly; the avid vacationer who exists for weekend getaways bronzes in the sun and darkens his soul; the luxurious man softens his mind as well as his body. Again the reasoning faculty is neglected and even damaged. Intemperance and Luxury are cultivated, not the reasoning faculty, and therefore not the Virtue of Temperance, which that reasoning faculty naturally leads one to.
     Marcus urges himself to disdain the flesh "as" one already dying.  As another Stoic, Seneca the Younger, often reminds us, we are in fact dying daily. Let us set our priorities in order while there is still time.  

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Wrong Kind Of Reading

Dispense with books! Be no longer dragged about by them! It is not permitted.
                                                                          Meditations, 2:1    

     Ancient Stoicism did not belittle study, learning and inquiry.  Quite the opposite, in fact. Another Stoic who lived earlier than Marcus, Seneca the Younger, at one point claims that he does not give himself rest and even allots a portion of the night to study. But a fickle and purposeless learning, a cusory jumping from one volume to another, is not permitted (that is, not useful or conducive) for the student who seeks to be wise. This kind of reading is especially prominent in our age of Wikipedia and the internet, combined with the double-edged sword of widespread literacy, which makes many fancy themselves experts in fields they have no real authority in.
     Worse yet is the kind of excited (or bored) curiosity that leads one to read book after book for mere entertainment value, or the impressionable and rapid jumping from one school or doctrine to another while never gaining a meaningful understanding of any of them. The former kind of reading can only excite, not cure, the Passions; the latter is a symptom of an already unsteady mind.  
     How many of our novelists, both popular and literary, produce works that seem to make excuses for or even glorify the very Vices that the philosopher would flee! The poets in the time of Marcus Aurelius did this very thing, exploring and embracing - in poetic metre and flowery language - all that is base and fickle, rendering the Passions as something not ugly, but attractive. Our poets and song writers today do the same. Our writers seek in their works to touchingly capture and display the "human condition", but never to cure it. Instead, they aggravate our illness by placing before our eyes the entire range of human goods and evils, and, in our age of moral ambiguity, rarely distinguishing between them. It is impossible that we might intentionally expose ourselves to this onslaught of emotions our writers set against us and not be affected by it, not be "dragged about" by these Passions that we foolishly indulge in as entertainment!
     Likewise, we allow ourselves to be "dragged about" when we roam aimlessness from one philosophical school or religion to another, learning quickly the basic slogans of each system but never truly understanding those systems and therefore never able to make use of them. To never change your mind when you discover you are wrong is to be a mule, not a man; but to change your mind on a whim, without serious deliberation (or for the sake of change itself!), is to be an unstable man.
     The Stoic knows how to read books properly; he is diligent in his study so as to teach himself to not be dragged about by Passions, conflicting ideologies, and the conceit that comes from the cursory knowledge of a subject.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Best Part Of Me

This thing that I am - whatever it is - is but paltry flesh and a little breath, and the Ruling Faculty. 
                                         - Meditations, 2:1  

     What am I?  A collection of sinews, organs, skin, and a bit of breath that keeps those parts functioning. Hardly a thing of significance and surely not a thing to prize.  It is the same stuff that makes up dumb beasts, cattle and wild game.   
     But is that all that I am?  Far from it!  I consist of a third part - the Ruling Faculty.  
     It is this Ruling Faculty of the mind that separates Man from beasts and makes him unique.  Indeed, it is this thing that makes us men. And it is this thing, then, that we must cultivate, care for, and pay attention to if we are truly to live according to our own natures as men
     Most, however, forget that they are men and neglect the best part of themselves, while they cultivate and even fret over their "paltry flesh" and "little breath". While this probably has always been the case, it seems overwhelmingly apparent in the West in this age of the ever-growing religion (and industry) of Healthism. The adherents of this cult make it their business to bombard the public with paranoid worries over numberless dangers (real or imagined) from artificial flavours and hormones in our food, to plastic containers, to the sunshine itself!  In this barrage of the Healthists' proselytizing efforts to gain new converts, it is unsurprising that so many of us are led astray away from our true natures and only have concern for the body like animals and not for the soul like men. Having done so, we live contrary to our own natures as beasts.    
     Of course, we must not neglect the body outright.  Stoicism teaches that our most basic instinct is towards self-preservation, and so we have a natural inclination toward the preservation of all parts of us.  But Stoicism also teaches that all parts of us are not equal in importance.  If self-preservation is our most basic natural instinct, then it follows that we should preserve the best part of ourselves before we preserve the lesser parts.  
     I am "paltry flesh" and "a little breath". As a good soldier, I will not abandon my post.  I will guard these parts of myself.  But I have standing orders that the protection of my Ruling Faculty takes first priority in this operation called life, and I am commanded to sacrifice those other parts if need be.