Marcus Aurelius: Pleasure & pain

Stoics and Epicureans have serious disagreements about pleasure and pain. Marcus Aurelius articulates why the Stoic view is best for human flourishing.

Balance rock, Lincolnville, Maine

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Don’t fear pain or seek pleasure

The human soul degrades itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or pain (2.16). To fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen. And with the world being what it is, that’s impious. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly impious (9.1).

Even pirates, perverts, parricides, and tyrants enjoy pleasure to the full (6.34). When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Remorse is annoyance at having passed up something to your benefit. But if it’s to your benefit it must be something a virtuous person would be concerned about. But no virtuous person would feel remorse at passing up pleasure. So pleasure cannot make you more virtuous (8.10).

Watch out for desire

In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).

Keep it simple

You don’t need much to live happily. Just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, and obeying God (7.67).

Non-attachment

Don’t dream of possessing what you don’t have. Reflect on the blessings of what you do have, and how much you’d miss them if they weren’t there. But be careful. Don’t become so dependent on this pleasure that it would upset you to lose them (7.27).

Character is most important

It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you inside or out (4.8). And what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly; and with integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it (2.17).

What’s truly harmful is compromising your character

For animate beings, “harmful” is whatever obstructs their senses, or the fulfillment of what they intend. So too for rational creatures. Anything that obstructs the mind is harmful. Apply this to yourself. Do pain and pleasure have their hooks in you? Let the senses deal with it. Are there obstacles to your action? That would harm you if you failed to recognize this possibility. But if you use common sense, you haven’t been harmed or even obstructed because no one can obstruct the operations of the mind (8.41).

Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your judgment of it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Keep the judging part of you quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone — bad and good alike — is neither good nor bad {i.e. it doesn’t affect your character unless you let it}. What happens in every life — lived naturally or not — is neither natural nor unnatural (4.39).

The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only the perpetrator is harmed by it — and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to (8.55).

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

Think it through

It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal — if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad? (6.33)

Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been (4.7, see also 7.14). Remove your judgments of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you is in trouble it can form its own judgments for itself (8.40).

Enduring pain

Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them (8.28).

Unendurable pain carries us off. Chronic pain can be endured: the mind preserves its serenity by withdrawing from the body – reason is not impaired by pain. The parts injured by pain can protest if they can (7.33).

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then stop complaining and endure it. If it’s unendurable also stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. But remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable by treating it as in your interest or nature to do so (10.3).

Forgive

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose (7.22).

Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them or get upset with them. We just keep an eye on them after that – but not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance. We need to do that in other areas as well. We need to excuse what our sparring partners do, and just keep our distance without suspicion or hatred (6.20).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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