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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 6)

Would I be a happier person if I adopted the Stoic philosophy of life? The answer to that question depends on my definition of happiness. Aristotle defined happiness in his Ethics as an activity of the soul in conformance with virtue. That’s probably not the definition most of us would give. I don’t. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t define happiness for the reader, but he does tell us that “…to revere and honor your own mind will make you content with yourself, in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods.” If I’m content with myself and get along with other people and I’m living a lifestyle that’s agreeable to God then I suppose that’s as close to happiness as I can hope for in this world. The problem is that it won’t last. One of these days it will all be over and I’ll either be old and feeble or dead. How can I be happy if I’m dead? Not to worry, says Marcus, “You are not dissatisfied, I suppose, because you weigh only so many pounds and not three hundred. Do not be dissatisfied then that you must live only so many years and not more.” It’s true that I don’t wish I weighed three hundred pounds. But at some point I may wish I had an extra five or ten years of life, especially if my life is a happy one. I don’t think we can compare being bigger with living longer. Those are two separate issues.

It may be more relevant to take quality of life issues into consideration. For example, if I’m bed-ridden and sleep eighteen hours a day what difference would an extra five or ten years matter to me? The important issue for Marcus seems to be: am I still able to do the work of a man? Furthermore, I need to not only be able to work physically but also to understand the reason why I’m working. This is important no matter how old I am. Marcus believes that “We are all working together to one end, some with knowledge and design, and others without knowing what they do.” In other words, working for the sake of work is pointless. Work needs to have a goal. If we’re all working together to achieve the same goal then our work takes on a social value for the whole community. That’s why we must “understand among what kind of workmen you place yourself” – are these people I’m working with doing it for the good of the community, or is money their only incentive? It makes a difference what kind of people we work with. It also makes a difference what kind of work we do. Marcus thinks that “he who rules all things will certainly make right use of you.” This statement assumes an inherent order to the universe. That most certainly includes the kind of work we do. So we should carefully consider our personal skills and talents and learn to apply them for the good of the community where we live. Trying to do work we’re unfitted for just mucks things up. “Does the sun undertake to do the work of the rain?”

If we extend this concept further it becomes clear to some people that not only am I a member of my community, I’m also a citizen on the international level. Marcus is an international citizen. He tells us that “my city and my country, so far as I am (Marcus), is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” Other people, some of them just as advanced as Marcus, may disagree. Their argument would be this: I can take care of my family and the friends and neighbors around me. I can’t take care of a billion people who live half way around the world. But for Marcus the point isn’t to be able to take care of people who live far away. What he wants to do is acknowledge our common humanity. In that sense it matters when injustice on a massive scale is taking place, no matter if it’s in the northern provinces of the ancient Roman Empire or in modern-day Darfur or Zimbabwe. The principle is the same. Cain once asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Marcus would say “Yes, you are.”


Blogger SMJ said...

This question presupposes that happiness is the ultimate goal of human existence. Stoic philosophy does not make that assumption, nor does Marcus Aurelius, unless you adopt the Greek idea of action in accordance with virtue. Otherwise, happiness is too easily confused with self-fulfillment or personal pleasure. These are not goals worthy of a civilized life. Aurelius would say that doing one's duty to one's country and living virtuously are more important. The emphasis on personal happiness as defined by our age is taken for granted within modern democratic societies founded on the principle of natural rights. But who is to say that individuals have any particular importance in the biology of evolution? Aurelius believed that divine intentions are inscrutable, and that our lives are brief and inconsequential by design.

The human obsession with mortality is a consequence of our total self-absorption. Religion, especially Christianity, plays into these primal fears by promoting the quest for personal salvation. But isn't the argument that if we behave decently we will be rewarded with eternal life a kind of existential bribe? Shouldn't we act decently regardless of how long we live? How did one become dependent upon the other? This is the question that stoic philosophy poses. Doing the right thing should be as much a part of our nature as breathing in and breathing out. Salvation may be contingent upon divine grace; acting virtuously is not.

7/21/2008 9:36 AM  

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