Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.

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Marcus Aurelius: Kindness

Human nature, according to Stoic philosophers, is not only rational but social.

Scottsdale, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

We are social beings

You participate in society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions — all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension — like the man acting as a faction unto himself, out of step with the majority (9.23).

In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks they become indifferent to us — like sun, wind, or animals. They impede our actions, but they can’t impede our intentions or our dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts its purposes to the obstacle, and what stands in the way becomes the way (5.20).

People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them (8.59).

Wash yourself clean with simplicity, humility, and indifference to everything but right and wrong. Care for other human beings. Follow God (7.31).

Don’t turn away from others

To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there is delight and stillness (6.7).

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own. So none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry or hate them. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions. (2.1).

People find pleasure in different ways. I find in in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them. In accepting and welcoming everything I see. In treating each thing as it deserves (8.43).

Kindness is its own reward

Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. Some don’t, but they privately think they’re owed something. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return. They are a human being helping others (5.6).

You’re no different from anyone else

When you deal with irrational animals, or with things and circumstances, be generous and straightforward. You are rational, but they are not. When you deal with your fellow human beings, behave as one. They share reason with you. And invoke the gods regardless (6.23).

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).

Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).

Take care that you don’t treat inhumanity as it treats human beings (7.65).

Be gentle with others

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).

It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).

If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one (10.4).

Kindness is invincible

Kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight (if you get the chance), correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. Show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately — with no hatred in your heart. Speak directly even if there are other people around (11.18).

When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind (6.48).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Anger & fear

Stoicism is not about repressing emotions — it’s about not allowing emotion to override reason. But emotions such as anger and fear most easily override reason.

Olive tree, Queens Creek, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Put it in perspective

Why feel anger at the world? It’s not like the world would notice (7.38).

When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated, remember that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side. Remember how much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them (11.18).

And expecting bad people not to injure others is to ask the impossible. Further, to let them treat other people like that but expect them to exempt you is arrogant — the act of a tyrant (11.18).

It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22, see also 8.47).

The world does not revolve around you

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. For the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence and respect for the divine, no less than to act justly (11.20).

To feel grief, anger or fear is to try to escape from something decreed by the ruler of all things — now, in the past, or in the future. And that ruler is law, which governs what happens to each of us. To feel grief or anger or fear is to become a fugitive from justice (10.25).

To be angry means you’ve forgotten that everything that happens is natural; that the responsibility is theirs, not yours; and that whatever happens has always happened, always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. What links one person to all people isn’t blood or birth but mind. An individual’s mind is God and of God. Further, nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself — all of them come from the same source. It’s all in how you choose to see things. The present is all we have to live in — or to lose (12.26).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) There is nothing bad in undergoing change — or good in emerging from it (4.42).

My only fear is doing something contrary to human nature — the wrong thing, the wrong way, or at the wrong time (7.20).

Get a grip

When jarred unavoidably by circumstances, come back to yourself at once. Don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it (6.11).

It’s the pursuit of things, and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out — you’re the one seeking them (11.11).

The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all, and before long you’ll be no one, nowhere. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being. Remind yourself what nature demands of us, and then do it without hesitation. Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, with humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).

Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resource to draw on — reason (7.8). Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present — and even that can be minimized. Isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it tries to claim it can’t hold out (8.36).

The mind is a fortress

The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).

Realize that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet. What’s in my thoughts at this moment? Fear? Jealousy? Desire? Feelings like that? (12.19)

None of the people you’re angry with have done anything that could damage your mind. It is only your mind that can harm itself. 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)

Dealing with other people

It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).

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).

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27).

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Think about people who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend — or not even a legend. How trivial are the things we want so passionately. It’s much more philosophical to take what we’re given and show uprightness, self-control, and obedience to God, without making a production of it. There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility (12.27).

Honey tastes bitter to a man with jaundice. People with rabies are terrified of water. And a child’s idea of beauty is a ball. Why be angry over that? Do you think falsehood is less powerful than bile or a rabid dog? (6.57)

You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it (8.4).

Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor. But don’t they have a brain? Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your reason to awaken theirs. Show them. Make them realize it. If they’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem without anger (5.28).

Take care of your soul

When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (10.30).

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).

The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world, when it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do (2.16).

No time for reading. For controlling your arrogance, yes. For overcoming pain and pleasure, yes. For outgrowing ambition, yes. For not feeling anger at stupid and unpleasant people — or even caring about them — for that, yes (8.8).

Your relationship to society

Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).

When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I. And if it is, anger is not the answer. Show the offender where he went wrong (5.22).

What’s worse than anger?

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).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Praise & criticism

Stoic advice not to value people’s praise or criticism doesn’t mean disdaining others.

Mohave Desert in western Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

What other people think is not your problem

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).

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27). What are their minds like? What evokes their love and admiration? Imagine their souls stripped bare. And their vanity. It’s their conceit to suppose their disdain could harm anyone, or their praise help them (9.34). But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).

Do you want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, or the approval of people who can’t please themselves? Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do? (8.53)

Listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are — both at home and abroad, by night as well as day, and who they spend their time with. Care nothing for the praise of men who don’t even live up to their own standards (3.4).

Take the high road

Take Antoninus as your model: his steadiness in any situation, his sense of reverence, his calm expression, his gentleness, his modesty, the way he put up with unfair criticism without returning it; how he would not listen to gossip, was slow to criticize, immune to rumor and suspicion, devoid of pretense, and not prone to backbiting, cowardice, jealousy, or empty rhetoric (6.30).

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).

___________________

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.

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Reason & the mind

Marcus Aurelius on reason and the mind: “It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately” (8.47). 

Flagstaff, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

You are what you think

“All is as thinking makes it so” – Monimus the Cynic (2.15). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22).

Respect your ability to control your thoughts – it’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions (3.9). The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).

Disciplining your mind

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else — not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Remove your judgement of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you has a problem then it can form that judgement for itself (8.40).

It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them — and this you can erase immediately. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? “But there are insurmountable obstacles.” Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you (8.47).

Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16). The cucumber is bitter? Throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Go around them. That’s all you need to know, nothing more. Don’t demand to know why such things exist (8.50).

Reason has no obstacles outside of yourself

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal (8.35).

Mind and reason have the power, by their nature and their will, to move through every obstacle. Remember the easy capacity for reason to carry through all things, and stop looking for anything more (10.33).

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, accommodates itself to what it faces, to what is possible. It pursues its aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in its spell (6.13).

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).

Reason is aligned with nature

To a rational being, an action that conflicts with reason is unnatural (7.11). The right path for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or obscure impressions, to direct its impulses toward social action, and to direct its desires and aversions only to things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it (8.7).

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).

To erase false perceptions, tell yourself: I have it in me to keep my soul from evil, lust and all confusion. To see things as they are and treat them as they deserve. Don’t overlook this innate ability (8.29).

All is in order whenever something can be done in accordance with reason, which is shared by gods and men. There’s the possibility of benefit when things move in step with nature, so there’s nothing to fear (7.53).

Reason & our shared humanity

All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are. Care nothing for their praise if they can’t even meet their own standards (3.4). Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say (5.3).

If thought is something we share, then so is reason — what makes us reasoning beings. If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not to do is also shared. And if so, we share a common law and thus are fellow citizens — fellow citizens of something. In that case, our state must be the world. What other entity could all of humanity belong to (4.4).

What is rational in different beings is related like the individual limbs of a single being, and meant to function as a unit.This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb of a larger rational body (7.13).

Reason is like sunlight

The sun’s light extends extends in a straight line, striking any object that stands in its way, but not the space beyond it. It stays there without vanishing or falling away. That’s what the universal mind is like — not an exhaustible stream but a constant radiation. There’s nothing forceful or violent about its impact, nor does it fall away. Rather, it illuminates whatever receives it. Anything unreflective will deprive itself of that light (8.57).

Reason and spiritual growth

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare — as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

Just as those who try block your progress along the straight path of reason can’t keep you from doing what’s right, so too you must not lose your good will toward them (11.9).

The rational soul

The rational soul is capable of self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. It reaps its own harvest and reaches its intended goal no matter where the limit of its life is set. It delves into the endlessness of time to extend its grasp and comprehension of the periodic births and rebirths that the world goes through (11.1).

The rational soul knows that those who come after us will see nothing different, that those who came before us saw no more than we do. It has affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, and humility. It doesn’t place anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. There’s difference between the logos of rationality and that of justice (11.1).

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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.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations on justice & providence

Marcus Aurelius claimed that everything that happens is just (4.10). This is so because divine providence determines everything (4.26). But his view is irrational because if everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Yet, if justice – the basis of all Stoic virtue (11.10) – is moot then Stoic virtue also is moot. Ancient Epicureans criticized Stoicism along similar lines.

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From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

All is just

“Everything that happens is right.” Look closely and you’ll see it’s true. Not just right overall, but just – as if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely and embody it in your actions. Goodness defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do (4.10).

Just as you hear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him,” say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. Here “prescribed” means something like “ordered to further his recovery.” What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny, for there is a single harmony (5.8, see also 10.5).

What we experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

There are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all. The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of wellbeing in what directs the world — of its wellbeing, its fulfillment, of its very existence even (5.8).

The whole is damaged if you cut away anything from its continuity and its coherence — anything at all. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying (5.8).

I am a part of a world controlled by nature. And I have a relationship with other, similar parts. With that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6).

Justice is the number one virtue

Nature is never inferior to art. Art imitates nature, not the reverse. In which case, universal nature itself cannot fall short of any artistic invention. Now, all the arts create the lower in the interests of the higher. Won’t universal nature do the same? This is the origin of justice, which is the source of all the other virtues. But how could we do what justice requires if we are distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To the best of my judgment, when I look at the human character I see no virtue that counters justice. But I see a virtue to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. And for the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence — respect for the divine — no less than to act justly. That too is kind of fellowship, and a prerequisite for justice (11.20).

Be sure your actions are not arbitrary or different from what justice would do (12.24). Justice – speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should — and as other people deserve. Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own misperceptions, what people will say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (12.1).

Injustice is blasphemy

Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm one another, as they deserve. To transgress its will, then, is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. (9.1).

Be indifferent to external events, and commit to justice in your own acts. This means thought and action resulting in the common good – what you were born to do (9.31).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else – not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

Do your best to convince others. But act on your own if justice requires it. If met with force then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues. Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances – you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished (6.50).

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, and to approach this thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54).

You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action – and be satisfied if each one achieves its goal (as far as it can). No one can keep that from happening. “But there are external obstacles.” No obstacle, though, to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense (8.32).

Providence

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What’s surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, “I have a purpose,” and the other gods as well. And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning (8.19).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

External events happen randomly or by design. You can’t complain about chance. You can’t argue with providence (12.24). And nature is indifferent to some things. That is, they happen impartially through cause and effect following from the ancient decree of providence. From this starting point it embarked on creation as we know it – laying down the principles of what was to come, and determining the forces of existence, change, and their successive stages (9.1).

Everything you’re trying to reach — by taking the long way round — you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice (12.1).

Don’t be disturbed. Don’t overcomplicate things. Someone has done wrong – but to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present — thoughtfully, justly, with unrestrained moderation (4.26).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

___________________

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.