Monday, 1 July 2013

Priorities

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.