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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 5)

There are many kinds of people in the world. Some are wise and some are foolish. Some are lazy and some aren’t. Marcus Aurelius thought it was better to be wise than it was to be foolish and better to work than be lazy. One of the things he reminded himself daily was “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” Of course it’s a lot easier to hit the snooze button and roll over for another fifteen minutes of sleep. But Marcus says we should ask ourselves “Have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm?” Birds were made to fly. Fish were made to swim. People were made to work. That’s what Marcus thinks. So do what it is you were born to do without fussing or complaining. We shouldn’t spend our days sleeping in late or hanging out on the couch watching TV. We should be doing something productive with our lives “…are you unwilling to do the work of a human being?”

The attitude we bring to our work is almost as important as the work itself. Our attitude is important because we spend all of our time inside our own minds. The thoughts we have are crucial to our quality of life. Marcus points out that “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” What Marcus calls “the character of your mind” is what we would call a personality. My personality is a unique blend of life experience and the things that are important to me as a person. Our personalities are formed partly by ourselves and partly by our environments. But by focusing our thoughts on the positive we can go a long way in changing the environment around us. Marcus believes that “where a man can live, there he can also live well.” Whatever the external circumstances are we still have the ability to improve the quality of our lives by sheer exertion of willpower. This is what separates the wise from the foolish and the diligent from the lazy.

It doesn’t mean that all will be well and have a happy ending. We still live in an imperfect world. Marcus doesn’t flinch from stark reality: “Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul?” The fact is we have to live around people who sometimes have smelly armpits and bad breath. But which is more important: the bad breath and smelly armpits of others or our own reaction to it? Marcus believes our reaction to unpleasant things is much more important. In fact, one of the keys to happiness is accepting these things for what they are: “He has such a mouth, he has such armpits: it is necessary that such an emanation must come from such things…” That’s just the way things are. Live with it. This is the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius in a nutshell.

It’s a hard philosophy. Too hard for most people I suspect. Most people prefer pleasant things. We don’t like bad smells or being cold. We like warm blankets and sleeping fifteen extra minutes. And if things go wrong many people aren’t above praying for help from the man above. Marcus won’t have any of that. He believes “In truth we ought not to pray at all…” His is a very tough-minded philosophy of self-sufficiency. But there are other philosophies of life. The Apostle Paul, for example, says we should pray without ceasing. This is the exact opposite of what Marcus says. What are we to make of all this? In short, who can we trust? This is the human dilemma. Where do we turn for answers about life’s bedrock issues? How we should live is about as bedrock as it gets. Get that one right and everything else falls into place. But if you get it wrong…well, philosophy isn’t child’s play. At this level philosophy isn’t something to be goofing around with. Either do it seriously or you’d be better off not doing it at all. It can mess you up. Marcus Aurelius and the Apostle Paul were serious men with serious philosophies of life. They weren’t playing around.


Blogger SMJ said...

Marcus Aurelius offers a curious blend of virtue and pragmatism.
On the one hand, insofar as you would be happy in life, he advises you to accept people the way they are, much as you would accept the occurence of natural phenomena such as blizzards or thunderstorms. On the other hand, you have certain duties to perform which are necessary for civilized life (meaning a life amongst other people, as opposed to living in the forest by yourself). These duties may be inconvenient, but if you adopt the proper attitude you will not be made miserable by your work.

The reason Marcus Aurelius does not believe in prayer is that he thinks the world is the way that God intends it to be. Instead of asking God to intercede to make things easier for us, he thinks we should accept our fate and not whine about it. He does not believe in the kind of God that makes people feel happy all the time. The human condition is what it is and cannot be changed, just as the condition of other creatures like fish or birds is beyond their ability to change. This is the pragmatic side of Aurelius.

Now when it comes to the matter of whom we should trust, we should be sure we have a clear idea about what it is that we are seeking. If we value joy and pleasure above all things, then we need to follow those who know about joy and pleasures, like the Greek philosopher Epicurus. If, on the other hand, you value truth above all other things, then you need to let reason be your guide. For reason will not compromise with pleasure. Aurelius and St. Paul have two different ideas of the Good. Aurelius believes in virtue and duty, whereas St. Paul believes in the idea of salvation. Now salvation does not necessarily mean you abandon the idea of virtue or duty, but it does lead one to follow a certain path whose final destination is the immortality of the human soul, which may not be in harmony with your duty to Rome or your fellow man.

Aurelius says don't bother praying because it won't change what God has willed to happen. In other words, God won't change his mind to make you happy. Whereas Saint Paul says prayer is necessary, not to make you happy, but as a way of demonstrating your love and gratitude for God's gift of creation.

Aurelius would say that if you want to show God how grateful you are, you should live a decent life and strive to do good. Of course, Aurelius was not hoping for a ticket to paradise. He simply wanted to live out his days with dignity and respect for his fellow Romans, and to leave the world with no regrets or bitterness over how things might have been.

7/15/2008 11:13 AM  

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