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?

img_1088
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.

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?

img_1026
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.

Seneca’s letters

img_1045Seneca was criticized in his own day (and in the 2,000 years since) for his hypocrisy. Maintaining his wealth and elite political status meant not always practicing what he preached.

Does this means his words are empty? Well, who am I to judge Seneca? Am I better than him? Am I less of a hypocrite than him? No. And neither are you.

 

Anger

Whatever his faults were, Seneca was an insightful man. Penguin Classics publishes an edited collection of letters he wrote to a friend in the days before Emperor Nero told Seneca to go kill himself. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.

I previously wrote about Seneca’s book On Anger.  Seneca said that anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Anger is about the desire to punish someone for real or imagined harm.

But what about righteous anger over oppression and exploitation? The logical conclusion is that the more inclined to anger someone is the more decent that person must be. But was Socrates an angry man? What about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr? When we think of a wise person, we think of someone who is calm is the face of evil. Reason seeks fairness, but anger seeks only the appearance of fairness as a justification for lashing out.

Emotional independence

Seneca’s letters add to this line of thought. He writes that Stoicism doesn’t mean being emotionless. Instead, the goal of Stoicism is to feel your troubles without being overwhelmed. A sage doesn’t want to lose anything but also doesn’t pine for what’s been lost. A sage wants to have friends but can survive alone (#9).

Taking criticism while keeping your ego at bay is also important. Besides, someone’s criticism might be an uncomfortable truth, and listening could make you a better person.

But the flipside to this is handing out compliments sparingly. Flattery is manipulation. It’s better to praise people (without being patronizing) for what can neither be given nor taken away from them – which is their character. (#41).

Egotism

Stoicism helps keep egotism in check. Seneca observers that “We’re born unequal, we die equal” – much like Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” because “a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

Seneca’s ego deflating views may be a hard pill to swallow in the 21st century when so many seem eager to tell their tale of struggle and woe as if their suffering is unlike anyone else’s.

But Seneca says, look, everyone has to deal with life’s troubles. So why do we think our struggles are unique? We’re not as special as we think.

That’s only depressing if you think it is. Reminding yourself that life is a struggle for everyone, regardless of the face they put forward, puts it in perspective. And that leads to equanimity (#91).

You are what you think

It really is all about the way you frame it. Thinking that moving, travelling, finding a new romantic partner, being richer, etc. will make you happier avoids the real issue, which is that you need an attitude adjustment.

Someone once complained to Socrates that travelling abroad never did him any good. Socrates replied, “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?” (#104).

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Stoicism is a major theme in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in FullBut Wolfe portrays Stoicism as a religion rather than a philosophy. Yet, while ancient philosopher Epictetus believed in Zeus, it’s hard to find a Stoic today who worships Greek deities.

In Wolfe’s novel, Conrad discovers Stoicism while in prison. An out of work father, Conrad leaves a job interview only to see his car being towed. He hadn’t parked on the sidewalk – a truck parked behind him had pushed his car out of its spot. Conrad argues with parking enforcement to no avail. Then he goes to the impound lot only to find that the fee is higher than he was told. So Conrad attempts to break his car out of impound. He fights back when the attendant tries to physically restrain him, and even attacks a police officer who intervenes. Conrad believes he was justified, however, so he turns down a misdemeanor plea bargain and is convicted of felony aggravated assault.

Maybe if Conrad had been a Stoic beforehand he would have handled things differently. His attempts at persuasion having failed, he might have realized that an impounded car is not within his control. He can’t force others to do anything against their will, and choosing assault must also come with choosing the consequences.

After escaping from prison, Conrad assumes a stolen identity and begins working as a personal care assistant for business tycoon Charlie Crocker, who recently had a knee replacement. Crocker is deep in debt, but a corrupt politician offers to pull some strings with the bank if Crocker will serve as a political pawn.

Crocker asks Conrad for advice, and Conrad says, “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”

Confused, Crocker asks for clarification, and Conrad tells him the story of Agrippinus. Emperor Nero had asked Agrippinus and Florus to humiliate themselves by acting like clowns – or face execution. Florus didn’t know what to do, but Agrippinus says that Florus will act like a clown while Agrippinus will not.

Why? Because Florus had already considered the possibility of acting like a clown. Agrippinus, instead, tells Nero, “It’s up to you to do your part, and it’s up to me to do mine.”

Point being, your only true possession is your character.

Crocker decides to sacrifice his business empire (and lose his trophy wife in the process) rather than be the politician’s clown. Then he becomes a Stoic evangelist.

Wolfe does a great job of illustrating a central Stoic idea – that there are no dilemmas when you’re asked to sacrifice your character. Maybe that’s why Stoicism appealed to early Christians. It echos Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”

This underscores the point that Stoicism is a philosophy independent of any religious tradition, though it can intersect with many different religions – or no religion at all.

How to become a better person, according to Epictetus

Tamarac, Florida
Tamarac, Florida

Most of us want to grow as individuals, to be better today than we were yesterday. But if we’re honest, we fall short too often.


We need a plan. And Epictetus has one.


He says we must focus on three things:

  • Our desires (including what we wish to avoid);
  • Our motivations to act or not act (and whether we’re organized or careless);
  • And what we assent to, including whether that assent is based on reason and reality, or if our judgments are hasty and based on false beliefs.

But as Mick Jagger famously put, you can’t always get what you want. When our desires are frustrated it’s easy to get upset and act irrationally. And then we fall into undesirable situations. That is, we unwittingly assent to things we’d rather avoid.

We can go too far in the other direction, though, becoming numb and detached. Epictetus warns against being “unfeeling like a statue.” This advice contradicts the stereotype that Stoics are emotionless – but the stereotype is wrong. Instead, he reminds us that we are social creatures and we should honor our natural desire to connect with others.


Life is like a banquet.


Epictetus says life is like a banquet. If something we want is offered to us, accept it – but don’t be greedy. If we don’t want it then decline it. If something we want isn’t offered to us then let it go.

We must remember that the entire world is interconnected. Virtue increases connection, but beliefs and actions that create disconnection can lead us to behave destructively. And anger (wanting to strike out against someone) and wanting to prove superior status through attachment to external things like money and power (which we can never really control anyway), all lead to disconnection.


Gimme three steps, mister.


The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we truly desire, and what we wish to avoid. Otherwise, we’ll go about things in a backhanded way and end up where we don’t want to be.

The second step is to understand what’s up to us and what’s not up to us. Or put another way, what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.

The only things that are up to us are our values, motivations, and choices. Other people, events, and so on don’t belong to us. So if we desire something we must be willing to let go of it because realistically we know it might not come our way.

Finally, consistency is important – take note of moments when we’re not at our best and what lead up to it. Then we can be on guard in the future.