Marcus Aurelius and the gods

Stoicism is usually described as pantheistic. But Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics also refer to the gods, which sounds polytheistic. Modern Stoicism is open to non-theistic and theistic perspectives.

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

God & Providence

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth (7.9).

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together (4.40).

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).

An individual’s mind is God and of God (12.26).

Trusting the gods

Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life — no one’s master and no one’s slave (4.31). Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin you into whatever she pleases (4.34).

Everywhere and at all times it’s up to you to honor God in contentment with your present circumstances: you have the option to accept each event with humility, to treat each person as he should be treated, to approach each thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54, see also 12.11).

Of gods and men

The gods live forever and yet they don’t seem annoyed at having to put up with human beings and their behavior throughout eternity. And not only put up with but actively care for them. And you {Marcus is writing about himself} — on the verge of death — you still refuse to care for them, although you’re one of them yourself (7.70).

The gods are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose or by accident. Nor men either. They don’t do it on purpose. No one is to blame (12.12).

Do gods exist?

People ask, “Have you ever seen the gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?” Answers: Just look around you. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it. That’s how I know the gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over (12.28).

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear, or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us (9.40).

If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. (It’s hard to picture a god who makes bad ones.) And why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them — or the world, which is their primary concern? And if they haven’t made decisions about me as an individual, they certainly have about the general welfare. And anything that follows from that is something I have to welcome and embrace.

And if they make no decisions, about anything (and it’s blasphemous even to think so because if so then let’s stop sacrificing, praying, swearing oaths, and doing all the other things we do, believing the whole time that the gods are right here with us) — if they decide nothing about our lives, I can still make decisions. I can still consider what it’s to my benefit to do. And what benefits anyone is to do what his own nature requires. And mine is rational. Rational and civic (6.44).

The gods and death

How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished (12.5).

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.

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Nature, the Universe & the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius believed in an interconnected universe where everything is just and happens according to divine will – even if that means you’re oppressed.

Modern science has not vindicated the ancient Stoic view of nature. Their rivals – the Epicureans – believed that nature is atomistic, impersonal, and that divine providence doesn’t exist. 

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Pantheism

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together (4.40).

The natural can never be inferior to the artificial. Art imitates nature, not the reverse (11.10).

Interconnection

Keep reminding yourself how things are connected. All things are related one another and in sympathy with each other (6.38).

There is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes (5.8).

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos (7.9).

Each of us needs what nature gives us, when nature gives it (10.20). Whatever happens to you is for the good of the world. That should be enough right there. But if you look closely you’ll generally notice something else as well: whatever happens to a single person is for the good of others (6.45).

To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early (4.23).

To nature: What the turn of your seasons brings me falls like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you, return to you (4.23).

Nature is personal

The soul of the universe is kind and social. It has made the inferior orders for the sake of the superior; and has suited the superior beings for each other. You see how it has subordinated, coordinated, and distributed to each according to its merit, and brought nobler beings together into a mutual agreement and unanimity (5.30, see also 7.55).

For a rational being, to act in accordance with nature is to act in accordance with reason (7.11). All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human (3.4).

To lie is to blaspheme against nature because nature is synonymous with truth (9.1). What injures the hive injures the bee (6.54).

Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead where nature is leading (7.55). 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 happens by necessity

Nature is passive and malleable. And the logos that governs it has no reason to do evil. It knows no evil, does none, and causes harm to nothing. It dictates all beginnings and all endings (6.1).

Nature brings about everything (6.9). Nature willed the creation of the world. We must agree that everything – even the worst we see – happens as a necessary consequence or connection with those excellent things primarily intended (7.75). Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once and for all — and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?) (9.28).

Through nature all things happen as they should. That things happen for the worst and always will, that the gods have no power to regulate them, and the world is condemned to never-ending evil—how can you say that? (9.35, see also 10.6)

No one can keep you from living as your nature requires. Nothing can happen to you that is not required by Nature (6.58). What humans 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).

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).

Reason, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces — to what is possible. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Nature is constant change

The whole is composed of individual parts whose destruction, or transformation, is inevitable. How can the whole run smoothly if this is harmful to the parts? Is nature oblivious? Neither seems very plausible (10.7).

All things are little, changeable, and presently to vanish. All things proceed from the universal governing mind, either by direct and primary intention, or by necessary consequence and connection with things primarily intended. Thus, the horrid jaws of the lion, poisons, and whatever is pernicious (as thorns or mire) are the consequences of those venerable and lovely things you admire. So don’t think they’re foreign to nature, which you revere, but rather the fountain of all things (6.36).

The universe is preserved by the changes of the elements, by the changes of the complex forms. Let these thoughts suffice; let them be your maxims, laying aside that thirst after multitudes of books; that you may die without repining, meek and well satisfied, and sincerely grateful to the gods (2.3b).

Even the incidental effects of the processes of nature have their own charm and attraction. For anyone who has a deep affection of soul, and insight into the workings of the whole, scarcely anything connected with nature will fail to recommend itself agreeably to him (3.2).

All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. Constantly observe everything that comes from change. The nature of the whole loves nothing so much as to change what exists and makes new things from it (4.36).

You have arisen as a part in the universe, you shall disappear again, returning to your source – or rather, by a change shall be resumed again, into that productive intelligence from you came from (4.14). Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature (9.3).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly (7.23). The world is continually renewed (7.25). To decompose is to be recomposed. That’s what nature does (9.35).

Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, “Give and take as you please” – not out of defiance, but out of obedience and goodwill (10.14).

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).

The big picture

Think of the whole of existence, of which you’re the tiniest part; how brief and fleeting your appointed time is; and how small a role you play in universal fate (5.24). By contemplating this you can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there — and clear out space for yourself (9.32, see also 12.32).

Remember these things always: what the nature of the universe is, what your nature is, and how this is related to the universe; what sort of part you are, what sort of whole (2.9), and the governor of the universe from whom you flowed as a small stream from a great fountain (2.4). And that no man can hinder you from acting and speaking in agreement with the whole, of which you are a part (2.9).

___________________

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: 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.

___________________

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

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.

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.

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).