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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 11)

Reading through these meditations it sometimes seems like Marcus Aurelius is saying the same things over and over again. He just uses different words. The theme he keeps coming back to, however, isn’t trivial: how should we live? That may be the most important question we’ll ever ask and the answer we give is crucial to our destinies. As Marcus points out that “This is not a debate over trifles, but over whether we will be sane or not.” (quoting Epictetus) It isn’t always easy to stay sane in this crazy world. But it’s not like we’re the only ones who have ever been through it before. Marcus also believes that “…the man who lives to be forty, if he has any sense at all, will have seen everything that was or will be.” If that’s true then we should all have life pretty much figured out by the time we’re forty. I don’t think that’s true. Maybe some folks do but my suspicion is that most people don’t have life figured out at all – even at eighty or ninety. If that’s the case then “No situation is better suited for the practice of philosophy than the one you’re in now.” No matter how old we are it’s not too late to start practicing up on our philosophy. In fact Socrates defines the task of philosophy as “learning to die.” It’s puzzling then why Marcus also says that “this readiness (to die) should result from a personal decision, not from sheer contrariness like the Christians…” Is that his opinion of the early Christians – that they were just being “contrary”?

Something about the early Christians must have annoyed or offended Marcus. The irony of this is that Marcus lays out some specific points to keep in mind when other people offend you. There are ten of them: (1) “We are made for one another,” even if they annoy us sometimes. (2) “What are they like at the table, in bed, and elsewhere?” It’s hard to hate someone who’s coming down in the morning in his pajamas to get some cereal for breakfast. (3) “If what they do is right, you have no reason to be offended. If wrong, then it’s plain they act out of compulsion or ignorance.” But what if they’re intentionally trying to get on my nerves? Then they’re not ignorant, they know what they’re doing and purposefully keep on doing it just to get under my skin. (4) “You often do wrong yourself.” But I’m trying to do better; they’re obviously not. (5) “You have no proof that they are doing anything wrong…A man must know a great deal before condemning another man’s behavior.” That’s true. Sad but true. (6) “Think how fleeting this life is and how soon you…will be laid out in the grave.” That’s not a pleasant thought and isn’t very helpful. (7) “It isn’t what others do that troubles you…you are bothered by your opinions of what they do. Rid yourself of those opinions…then your troubles will go away.” Just like that? Just rid myself of all my opinions? (8) “Our rage and lamentations do us more harm than whatever caused our anger or grief in the first place.” This is also true, but it must be fun – just read the op-ed section in the newspaper. These people obviously enjoy their rage and fill several columns with their lamentations. (9) “As long as it’s genuine…kindness is irresistible.” This may be possible for saints, but it’s very difficult for ordinary people to be kind to mean people. And finally (10) “To expect the wicked not to sin is sheer lunacy. It asks the impossible.” Kind of like asking Vanderbilt’s football team to get a bowl bid. Just one. Which brings us back to practicing philosophy. Being a Vanderbilt football fan is a philosophical education in itself: to calmly accept fate. It’s in the nature of things to eventually lose in the end. If Marcus Aurelius were alive today I think he’d be a Vandy season ticket holder.


Blogger SMJ said...

The question of how we are to live in the world is one that occupies our time from the day we join the human race. Fortunately, we do not operate from a standpoint of total ignorance. As children, we are guided by our parents in the formation of values and the reflective use of our judgment. We are not just tossed into society with a blank slate. We learn as we go through trial and error what kinds of values we hold dear, what opinions are worth keeping and which ones we should let go.

Now, what is true of individuals is also true of society. The values and beliefs that bind communities together are traditionally passed on from one generation to the next. That is not to say that opinions and beliefs don't change over time, for they often do, but not the core values which hold society together. For example, we Americans share a basic belief in democratic principles which are expressed in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are core values that we hold dear, and are not likely to part with anytime soon.

Other values may be located in our religious affiliations, such as our belief in God and the teachings expressed in the Beatitudes. So, most of us have a pretty good idea of the way we want to live, and unless we meet with great misfortune in our life, we are unlikely to question those values. On the other hand, what happens when we do meet with misfortune? If you ever come face to face with evil, you may be forced to reexamine your beliefs, especially if you think that your opinions of the world are no longer valid. What then?

The big philosophical questions that we ponder from time to time will probably never be answered to our satisfaction—Why are we here? Why is there evil? Why do we have to die? Both religion and philosophy have attempted to answer these questions, and their answers often seem to help some people, but not others. Aurelius gives us advice on how to get through life without succumbing to worry. He tries to convince us that most of our trouble is mental. If we would just adopt a different attitude, then things would be much nicer. But having a positive attitude can only take you so far. If you are dirt poor and have nothing to eat, having a positive attitude won't keep you alive. If you happen to fall sick or become disabled through an accident, you can sing "Don't worry, be happy" 'till the cows come home, but that won't pay your mortgage or put food on the table.

The reality is that having a positive attitude can help you get through the tough times, but it won't be enough. You're going to have to work hard and hope a little good fortune comes your way. Otherwise, you are screwed. The cold hearted truth is that without a family or community to fall back upon, you are on your own in the world. Nature doesn't care one bit whether you sink or swim. Just take a look around. You'll find that lots of creatures die every day, and biology informs us that entire species frequently go extinct. So when things go wrong in your life, don't expect anyone to come along and rescue you.

Now, given this state of affairs, what can (or should) we do about it? One option is to find religion. Many people go this way and claim to be better for it. As long as your faith holds out, then religion can get you through a lot of bad times. But if your faith vanishes, then where are you? Back where you started. Stoic philosophers, like Aurelius, suggest that you are pretty much on your own. Yet, if you can overcome your fear of death, and you don't mind a little pain and suffering along the way, then you can still have a pretty nice life. That seems to be the gist of it. Since Aurelius believes that most of our trouble in life is strictly mental, his advice is designed to alleviate mental stress. In a way, he is advocating that we be our own physician. To heal ourselves. As for the other obstacles in life that cannot be cured by a change in attitude, he has little to offer. This is one of the limitations of stoicism. It doesn't really care much about human discomfort. You are supposed to be man enough to rise above your physical pain. That might have sounded more persuasive 1,900 years ago when most people had difficult lives, and could endure more discomfort than we are accustomed to.

Today, we look for practical solutions to improve our situations in life. As Aristotle would say, having a good attitude helps, but having a little money in the bank will help even more. The fact is that other people frequently get on our nerves and do things that appear silly if not downright insane. What are we going to do about it? If we are strong or ruthless enough, we can resort to violence and force other people to get out of our way. But violence has its price. Unless you want to live life as a constant warrior, you need a better way of dealing with other people. Aurelius, like the Christian martyrs he disapproved of, advocates an attitude of tolerance toward others. Don't regard other people as the enemy. They are, in fact, your brothers and you should treat them with the same respect and good will as your family. This outlook is certainly generous and may even be the best solution for our problem, but it is not an easy path to follow. It requires a lot of what Christians call personal "grace" and what non-religious folk might call generosity of spirit. If you happen to lack grace or generosity of spirit, then as a member of the human race you are in for a long spell of disappointment and aggravation. Don't expect your suffering to end anytime soon, and don't look for any useful explanations as to why things are the way they are. Just accept it and walk on.

9/05/2008 11:34 AM  

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