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.   

Tuesday, 11 June 2013


We have come into being for cooperation, as have the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. Therefore, it is against Nature to act against each other.  We act against each other by being discontented and by abhorring one another.
                                                                                          - Meditations 2:1

     Man is a social animal, made to live in communities, societies, cities.
     Other philosophies and religions urge withdrawal from society and a retreat - even a fleeing - to the wilderness, apart from the communion of other men and free from the individual responsibilities society demands of us.  
     In contrast to these escapist (and selfish and cowardly) systems, the Stoic will not flee.  He maintains his post.  Moreover, he accepts who he is, a social animal, like a bee in a hive, made to perform his particular duty allotted to him.
     The Greek words translated above as "being discontented" and "abhorring" can also (and perhaps more literally) be translated as "annoyed" and "turning away from".  We tend to turn away the things that annoy us.  Emperor Marcus, a man with the power to turn away just about any annoying person he pleased, reminded himself that he, the most important man in Rome, came into being for "cooperation" with his fellow man.             

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Unhurt and Unangered

But I, having understood the nature of the Good, that it is beautiful, and the nature of the Evil, that it is ugly, and the nature of the sinner himself, that he is my kinsman, not necessarily sharing the same blood and seed as myself, but sharing in the same intelligence and morsel of the Divine, I can neither be hurt by any of them (for nobody can involve me in what is base), nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him.

                                              - Meditations 2:1

     The Stoic can remind himself at daybreak, as Marcus did, that he cannot be hurt or angered by the actions of the wrong-doers that he will certainly meet throughout the day for three reasons:
     1) The wrong-doer is confused.  He does not understand the nature of the Good and Evil, that only Virtue is good and thus beneficial to him, and that only Vice is evil and thus harmful to him.  He does not know where true Beauty and Ugliness lie, and thus he strives after the wrong objects, living in a constant state of confusion.  This is why he commits wrong-doing.  It is more suitable for the Stoic to pity such a man, than to be wroth with him. [This, of course, does not mean that Justice should not be pursued when a wrong in committed.  Justice is one of the primary Virtues of Stoicism.  But Justice can and should be pursued without Anger.  Virtue has nothing to do with Vice.]
     2) The wrong-doer has no real power to hurt the Stoic.  Having understood the nature of the Good and the Evil, that only Virtue benefits and only Vice harms and that these two things are within one's own and exclusive control, the Stoic knows that he cannot be truly harmed by another, only by himself. 
     3) The wrong-doer is the Stoic's kinsman.  The ancient Stoic believed that all members of Mankind were partakers in the Divine, that the reasoning faculty within us was connected to the very intelligence of God, part of the Divine Logos that permeates the Universe and is in fact the mind of the Universe, conscious and fully providential.  As we all share in the mind of God, we are all kinsman, even if not by blood.  It is the perverse man who hates his kinsman.  What is more, for the Stoic, such hatred borders on impiety as it is hatred, in a sense, that is directed against the Divine.