Marcus Aurelius & Meditations: A 300 word summary

Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a brilliant read, but not an easy one. Marcus called it To Himself.

It’s a journal, not a polished book. He jumps from topic to topic, then back to the same topic, with many repetitions.

What are the major themes? In future posts I’ll go into detail. For now I’ll say that I think of the topics in Meditations as being like a bicycle wheel.

The wheel is the universe – the whole, as it were. Nature is the hub of the wheel – nature as in the essential qualities or innate disposition of things. The relation of parts to the whole is a key theme.

Extending from the hub are various spokes, and reason is the second most important. Reason is the nature, or essential quality, of human beings. No other animal is capable of reason, and with reason we need not be slaves to our passions and can focus on the greater good.

Virtue, then, is the most important spoke because reason is a means to virtue.

Impermanence is also an important spoke. Understanding that our time on earth is but a second compared to all of existence can help us realize how trivial most of our concerns are.

Getting bogged down with petty concerns and failing to put things into perspective is a sure way to act destructively under the pretense of doing good. People who act destructively usually do so from ignorance – from their lack of perspective – rather than from malice.

Finally, death is related to impermanence. And Marcus reflects often on death. Maybe because he knew his time was growing short. But also because it helped him remember that none of his petty concerns would matter for long.

Where do human rights come from?

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Phoenix, Arizona

Are human rights government creations? Or do human rights pre-exist government – being derived from nature – with government tasked with protecting those rights?

These are important questions because the answers weigh heavily on what rights we have and whether they can legitimately be taken away.

If we have free speech only because the government says we do then we don’t really have the right to free speech because the government can just as easily take this right away.

On the other hand, if human rights are natural rights then the government cannot legitimately deprive us of these rights. But what’s the basis for saying human rights arise from nature?

The Good

These questions have come to the forefront because the perspective of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch gives us clues about how he might rule on various issues.

Reason.com says the debate centers on the question, “What is the good?” One position is that life is inherently good. Another is that human flourishing is the primary good, and human rights are necessary for this flourishing – what Thomas Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness,” or what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia (which is often translated as happiness even though that doesn’t fully capture it).

This matters, Reason goes on to say, because if life is inherently good with no further explanation needed then abortion and assisted suicide are not rights. But if human flourishing is the good, and life is in service to this flourishing, then a woman’s flourishing gives her the right to choose.

Stoicism and human rights

What would ancient Stoic philosophers think of this debate? That’s hard to say. Eudaimonia is important in Stoicism. But eudaimonia cannot be achieved unless we live virtuous lives. So for Stoics, virtue is more important than happiness.

Natural rights wasn’t a concept in the ancient world, however. Had it been, ancient Stoics might have connected natural rights to justice, which they saw as part of Nature. Perhaps they even would have claimed Logos as the source – the providential universal reason that orders all things.

I wrote earlier that this idea of Logos isn’t as popular with Stoics today because modern science makes it hard to justify. Instead, I suggested that the elusive “theory of everything” – the underlying principle of the universe from which every other scientific principle follows – might be the closest we can come to Logos. But this is not a conscious or providential force – it’s an impersonal force of nature.

So a modern Stoic who rejects the ancient view of Logos can’t argue that natural rights exist as an objective scientific principle.

What I’m left with is my opinion that human rights pre-exist government because every person must have rights in order for human flourishing to be possible. While my position lacks an objective, scientifically provable standard, I argue that the same is true for those who disagree with me.

Did Buddhism influence Stoicism?

Both teach nonattachment, impermanence, and interconnectedness.

Both advise self-control, especially when strong emotions are involved.

Both teach that how we think about things determines how we experience life.

Both say that we create our own suffering by constantly yearning for more while failing to appreciate what we have.

And most of all, both place a strong emphasis on virtuous thoughts and actions.

But there are differences as well. Stoicism focuses on reason rather than mysticism. Concepts like Nirvana and rebirth are absent from Stoicism, as is the Buddhist practice of meditation.

The historical record is scant. I created this crude timeline to show the key interactions between Greek and Buddhist cultures:

buddhism-stoicism-timeline

 

 

 

You’ll notice that there is no known interactions between Buddhists and Stoics in ancient times. Stoicism grew out of Cynicism, however, and Cynic philosopher Onesicritus did interact with Indian ascetics after Alexander the Great reached the Indus River. We don’t know if these Indian ascetics were Buddhist, though they could have been. Besides, Cynicism had independently developed asceticism and non-attachment prior to contact with the East.

After Alexander’s empire split into smaller empires, Indo-Greek King Menander I became a Buddhist. And through trade routes it’s possible that some Buddhist ideas made their way back to Greece. And Caesar Augustus is known to have met with a Buddhist Indian king. A century and a half later the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius emphasized impermanence and interconnectedness.

But this is all circumstantial. It’s possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes. But if so, it’s unlikely that Stoic philosophers knew the Buddhist origin of these influences.

The most important question for Neil Gorsuch

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Phoenix, Arizona

Resisting President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is bound to be a losing game. The seat will be filled at some point, and Trump is not going to appoint a liberal justice.

But there are different strands of conservatism. George Will brings up an interesting question that should be asked of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Quoting Lincoln, Will describes the Constitution as a frame of silver for a golden apple, which is the Declaration of Independence. That is, the Constitution details how we protect the Declaration’s ideal that everyone has equal natural rights.

Will criticizes President Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Bork disparaged the ninth amendment, which says that there may be more rights than are explicitly stated in the Constitution.

Will also criticizes late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia‘s claim that democracy means majority rule with protection for “minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection.”

Scalia’s ideology seems to disparage natural rights. And certainly it ignores James Madison‘s statement that one purpose of the Constitution is that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

Scalia’s disregard for individual rights when the majority see fit not to grant these rights represents a powerful strand of conservatism – particularly social conservatism. And President Trump appears to be in this camp.

But other conservatives emphasize the word “unalienable” in the Declaration’s statement that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” And considering Madison’s remarks in Federalist #51, the only way that Scalia-style conservatives can truly claim to be originalists is by denying that the Declaration of Independence is all that important to the Constitution which followed.

Will hopes that Gorsuch’s originalism will differ from Bork and Scalia’s by recognizing that natural rights are unalienable, meaning the majority can’t take them away. But note that is is about protecting natural rights, not the judiciary usurping Congress. This is Will’s conservatism.
We don’t yet know what kind of conservative Gorsuch is. I hope Congress asks him.

The Red Pill: A controversial documentary about the men’s rights movement

redpillThe latest documentary by sometime feminist Cassie Jaye has caused no small amount of controversy. More so than previous documentaries such as Daddy I Do, where she criticizes purity balls and father’s attempts to protect their daughter’s virginity. Or The Right to Love, which supports the fight for marriage equality.

The Red Pill looks at the men’s right movement, challenging what we think we know about gender issues. 

Tough questions

The film is controversial because of its positive portrayal of the men’s rights movement. Jaye gives A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam a sympathetic hearing without challenging him on his ranting online persona. Also unquestioned is men’s rights activists (MRAs) failure to take women’s issues seriously while demonizing feminists and blaming them for problems men face. And left unexamined is the claim that society is gynocentric.

But Jaye does ask feminists tough questions. They avoid the issue of paternity fraud and stand firm in their opposition to a legal presumption of shared parenting. On the issue of father’s rights Katherine Spillar from the Feminist Majority Foundation says a man’s choice happens before he has sex. Another feminist in the film says men have a responsibility not to put themselves in these situations. Which would be misogyny if said about women. 

Later in the film feminist Michael Kimmel denies that domestic violence against men is a serious issue despite a Centers for Disease Control report (tables 4.7 and 4.8) showing that 5.066 million men have been pushed or slapped by an intimate partner in the past 12 months compared to 4.322 million women. Even with severe domestic violence the CDC found more male victims than most people would expect – 2.266 million men and 3.163 million women in the past 12 months.

Men and gender: It’s complicated

Since the advent of second wave feminism a half century ago men have struggled to proactively discuss gender issues. Today the Internet is the primary medium for MRAs to vent their concerns and anger, often anonymously. And anti-feminism is their focus.

Meanwhile, male feminists advocate men checking their privilege and acknowledging their collective guilt as oppressors. But feminism is a female perspective on gender where men’s issues are usually discussed in terms of how masculinity affects women. It’s difficult for men to speak genuinely about men’s lived experiences when taking their cues from women.

It’s a complex situation without a clear solution.

A movement is born

The central text of the men’s rights movement is The Myth of Male Power, written in 1993 by former male feminist Warren Farrell. His key point that the male role requires men to devalue their lives in the service of others sparked a movement even if it didn’t become mainstream.

Male disposability garners such little concern that few people have even heard of it. But MRAs present several statistics backed by United States government reports, including men being 93% of workplace deaths, almost four in five suicides, and 98% of combat deaths. They note that Boko Haram kidnapping girls generated an outpouring of international concern while the boys they burned alive were ignored.

Male disposability isn’t just about death. High divorce rates have decreased father involvement in children’s lives, reducing men’s value to a child support check. Yet research shows the essential role of fathers in children’s lives – boys especially. And boys are falling far behind girls in school, but little is being done about it.

Anger

MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized. But feminists feel dehumanized by MRAs. Jaye shows footage of a feminist protest against Farrell without giving the context for why feminists labeled him a rape apologist. In The Myth of Male Power Farrell writes, “before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting.” MRAs respond that this quote must be understood in its larger context. Though Farrell was not advocating rape, flippant comments about rape are always cringeworthy.

Where do we go from here?

Both feminists and MRAs seem passionate about equality and sensitive to gender bias while at other times being anti-equality and promoting gender bias. But this isn’t as inconsistent as it seems. Both feminism and the MRM are primarily about self-interest.

In the end Jaye concludes that she supports gender equality but is neither a feminist nor a men’s rights activist. But she’s not sure what direction that might go in. Despite my criticisms of the documentary, I agree with Jaye’s conclusion.

The Red Pill will be available on Netflix in 2017.

Is everything that happens just?

Seems like a silly question. If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.

But in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes,

If you attend well, you will find that whatever happens, happens justly. I don’t mean only in an exact order and destined connexion, but also according to justice, and from one who distributes according to merit. Go on in observing this, as you have begun: and whatever you do, do it so as you may still remain good, according to the intellectual and true notion of goodness. Observe this in all your actions.

Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona
Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona

This could be used to justify terrible things. Is every murder and rape in accord with justice and distributed by merit?

Such attitudes were common in ancient times, though. Elsewhere, Marcus says we should welcome whatever happens to us, even if it’s cruel, because it’s for the benefit of the universe (5.8).

His viewpoint is consistent with the ancient Stoic belief in Logos – that divine reason orders the universe, that it’s providential, and what follows from it is our fate.

In 1759 Voltaire made fun of the idea that everything is for the best in his short book Candide. Despite a series of tragedies, Dr. Pangloss comically denies reality and remains childishly optimistic. Before the movie Pollyanna, a naive person with rose colored glasses was called Pangloss.

Many modern Stoics don’t agree with Logos in the ancient sense. But this greatly alters Stoicism. No longer is the universe ruled by reason, though the exercise of reason is still a human ability that is central to Stoic philosophy.

And there is no providence. In my view, if Logos is even a useful concept in the modern world it must be brought in line with science. The laws of nature, as we currently understand them, follow from four forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces, the gravitational force, and electromagnetism. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” that will bring these together to reveal the underlying principle of the universe.

But this will not be a conscious, providential principle like Logos. Instead, the universe is indifferent to our existence and is unaware of whether we suffer or not.

Natural disasters, then, are not unjust because there’s no intention behind it. Justice and injustice are human products, the result of the actions of billions of people. And this is where Stoicism is still relevant. The only thing one controls is one’s deliberate thoughts and opinions, and virtuous actions can only follow from virtuous thoughts and opinions. So everyone has a responsibility to contribute to justice and avoid injustice.

Why don’t people like me?

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Pima Canyon, South Mountain Phoenix, Arizona

It’s an often heard lament, especially from children. But the sentiment usually doesn’t fade with age. Instead it becomes more specific. Why didn’t I get the promotion? Why won’t he call me?

Our desire for approval (and fear of disapproval) is really a desire for social status.

 

 

True harm is failing to respond ethically

Epictetus was born a slave who learned at a young age that social status wasn’t up to him – and maybe not all it’s cracked up to be. Though freed later he didn’t try to climb the social ladder.

In his handbook (24.1), Epictetus points out that we “cannot be in a bad state as a result of someone else’s actions.” Other people may cause us pain, but that’s their shame. Only a poor response on our part brings us shame.

Besides, we don’t control whether someone likes us, praises us, agrees to a date, or makes a job offer. We do have some influence, but the final outcome isn’t up to us.

Self-worth can’t be given or taken away

If our self-worth is based on external validation and can be destroyed by other people’s disapproval then it’s actually we who are the destroyer. We’re destroying our power over something that’s under our control – which self-worth based on the kind of person we choose to be.

Is it better to be an honest and nurturing person who is despised by others, or to be a destructive person who nonetheless is admired by many? The dynamics of political power and wealth create dilemmas like this.

Epictetus warns against blaming others or blaming circumstances – or even blaming ourselves. Shit happens. Shit happens to us. But we don’t control other people or external circumstances. We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is choose how we think about the situation, and what we choose to do about it. And it’s here that we can act ethically or egotistically.

Peace of mind

And that’s Epictetus’s formula for peace of mind. Let go of external circumstances that are beyond our control, and ask ourselves – before we act – what’s the right thing to do knowing that ultimately I must live with myself?

Doing the right thing has made some people into outcasts. For others acting ethically has led to a loss of reputation, or a loss of material goods that others wanted and pretended to admire us to obtain. But what does it say about us if we desire the approval of people like that?

The bigger picture

This doesn’t mean we should despise others or point a finger at them. After all, disapproval from others most often takes the form of moralistic finger pointing, so we’d be acting no differently from them.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes our shared humanity. Other people wrong us because of their errors of judgment or ignorance, but most things are minor in the grand scheme of things. Only we can harm ourselves by responding in kind. The best way to overcome the disapproval of others is not retaliation, but setting a better example.