Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 2)

What kind of philosopher advises people to “throw away your books” and “cast away the thirst after books”? It’s the same philosopher who says that “those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.” And it’s also the same philosopher who says “What then can guide a man? One thing and only one, philosophy.” Marcus Aurelius is that philosopher. What does he mean by these statements? Surely he doesn’t believe that reading is a bad thing. Socrates always spoke out his philosophy and never wrote a book. But we don’t have the advantage of having a man like Socrates to teach us directly. I don’t think Marcus Aurelius did either. So we do the best we can – we read about the conversations Socrates had with his pupils, as recorded (or invented) by Plato. It’s not as effective as being there in person or, better yet, being interrogated by Socrates himself. But surely it’s better than not knowing Socrates at all. I think what Aurelius is driving at is that you can’t learn about life from reading it in a book. You have to live it. Philosophy is only a tool. It can guide a man only insofar as it persuades him to act in one way and not another. Otherwise philosophy is just words on a page.

In order to know what we’re doing we need to be able to understand how our minds work. What Aurelius may ultimately be driving at here is that we have the power to shape our own minds. But I also think he’s saying that at first we should be content to just observe. Before we can run we have to learn how to walk. By quietly observing how our minds work we’ll be much more capable of shaping them when the time comes. This kind of observation and understanding apparently has a sort of calming effect on the personality. Aurelius believes it should be our goal to “live a life that flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods.” If we can achieve a high level of concentration and peacefulness we will obtain true happiness. The Zen Buddhist tradition calls this state of mind “satori.” But somehow I don’t see Aurelius as a Zen Buddhist monk and I can’t envision him ever converting into one either, even if he knew what it was. Aurelius is much too western in his outlook. His goal isn’t to obtain satori. His goal is to “every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity…” There would be certain Stoic elements shared in common with his brother Zen Buddhist monk – such as “do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity” – but make no mistake, Aurelius has one main desire: to think steadily as a Roman. This is no Zen Buddhist monk talking.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a philosophy that shares some traits in common with Zen Buddhism: for example, do the task at hand with simple dignity; meditate; “see the breath also, what kind of a thing it is”; and do not fear death but understand what kind of a thing it is too. In other ways Stoic philosophy is far removed from Buddhist principles. Aurelius doesn’t want to withdraw from the world. He wants to take an active role in the affairs of the state. However, that activity must be a controlled action directed first by a reasonable and calm mind. Aurelius warns us not to become “triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity and yet have no object to which to direct every movement and thought.” These are the kind of people who have no focus and therefore their lives have no purpose. The Buddhist monk would also disapprove of these rootless people. So the real disagreement between the Buddhist monk and the emperor Aurelius is where to put down roots. The real dispute between them is this: to what cause should we attach ourselves? To nothing, the monk would answer. To my duty as a Roman, would be the answer of Aurelius.


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