In my previous post about death and Stoicism, I didn't give my main Stoic man, Marcus Aurelius, the blog time that he deserves.
So yesterday I found my well-thumbed copy of his Meditations, a hard to find 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth, and re-read some of Marcus' marvelous observations on living a good life. And dying a good death.
I'm putting this post in my "Plotinus" category because both of these philosophers, one of whom I've written my own book about, shared a fundamental Stoic philosophy.
Which moves me.
Now, that's sort of a contradiction, because Stoicism holds (along with Buddhism) that it's possible to be detached from the ever-changing circumstances of life. We have the power to choose our subjective response to objective reality so events don't excessively move us.
Some quotations from the Meditations:
Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. Think of the countless changes in which you yourself have had a part. The whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it.
Never go beyond the sense of your original impressions. These tell you that such-and-such a person is speaking ill of you; that was their message; they did not go on to say it has done you any harm. I see my child is ill; my eyes tell me that, but they do not suggest that his life is in danger. Always, then, keep to the original impressions; supply no additions of your own, and you are safe. Or at least, add only a recognition of the great world-order by which all things are brought to pass.
That "great world-order" doesn't include a personal God. So Marcus and Plotinus resonate with my churchless soul. Using modern parlance, we'd say they're spiritual but not religious.
Staniforth's Introduction makes this clear. It's available in its entirety via Google Book Search. Pages 7-25 are a good overview of Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius.
I like how (on pp. 21-22) Staniforth talks about how Marcus, ostensibly a Stoic, was so obviously moved by moods of hope and depression, and how he had an evident longing for sympathy and affection.
The Meditations are Marcus Aurelius' diary, a deeply personal record of his struggles to live up to the high Stoic standards he set for himself. Staniforth says that when "we overhear the philosopher-emperor's secret communing with his own soul, and remember that at no time is he addressing any human auditor but himself, I believe every instinct tells us that we are in the presence of a man who is simple, humble, and utterly sincere."
Guess that helps explain why his writings move me so much. Marcus doesn't speak from a holier-than-thou perspective (though his ego does occasionally come through). He's uncertain about what will happen after death – refreshing, compared to the spiritual know it all's of both his and our time.
In death, Alexander of Macedon's end differed no whit from his stable-boy's. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.
He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any new sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.
Happy the soul which, at whatever moment the call comes for release from the body, is equally ready to face extinction, dispersion, or survival.
Stoicism in general, and Marcus Aurelius in particular, appeal to my modern scientific mind. There's little in the Meditations that conflicts with current understanding of the universe, once we realize that the Stoic "God" is the same as "Nature."
Staniforth says, "Stoicism is thus a pantheistic creed: that is to say, it holds that God is immanent in all created things, but has no separate existence outside them."
There's a universal order in the universe (not surprisingly). The Stoics, along with Plotinus, called it a World Soul. I call it the laws of nature. Same thing, really.
Nature does its thing. So do we, who also have a soul – consciousness. The big difference between us and the World Soul is that we're a part of the whole, and the World Soul is the whole.
Which makes for a big power imbalance.
As the saying goes, "man proposes and God disposes." I tried to drive our Prius up the driveway last night. Nature, however, had put a layer of snow over some ice. After spinning my wheels I backed down into the garage.
Nothing wrong had happened. There was no call for me to say, "How cruel is the world!" I simply had to adjust myself to circumstances, to objective reality. I put the garbage can in the back of our all-wheel-drive Highlander Hybrid and got up the hill without much problem.
If you are doing what is right, never mind whether you are freezing with cold or beside a good fire; heavy-eyed, or fresh from a sound sleep; reviled or applauded; in the act of dying or about some other piece of business. (For even dying is part of the business of life; and there too no more is required of us than 'to see the moment's work well done'.)
Nature always has an end in view; and this aim includes a thing's ending as much as its beginning or its duration. She is like the ball's thrower. Is the ball itself bettered by its upward flight? Is it any worse as it comes down, or as it lies after its fall? What does a bubble gain by holding together, or lose by collapsing? The like is true of a candle, too.
Is your cucumber bitter? Throw it away. Are there briars in your path? Turn aside. That is enough. Do not go on to say, "Why were things of this sort brought into the world?"
As I observed in "Death shines under a full moon," religion finds something wrong with the cosmos that needs to be fixed: "that nature, God, Tao, whoever or whatever runs the cosmos, has seriously screwed things up. And it takes a savior, a guru, a god-man, a revelation, a miracle, to get life and death back in order."
I like how Stoicism sees the order of the universe as being just fine the way it is. That puts the responsibility for getting in tune with it on us.
All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself.
When a man finds his sole good in that which the appointed hour brings him; when he cares not if his actions be many or few, so they accord with strict reason; when it matters nought to him whether his glimpse of this world be long or fleeting – not death itself can be a thing of terror for him.
I'll end with a passage from Marcus' Meditations that contains, in three sentences, one of them very long, a wonderful summation of Stoic philosophy. I broke it up into a more poetic format – didn't change any wording.
You are composed of three parts:
body, breath, and mind.
The first two merely belong to you
in the sense that you are responsible for their care;
the last alone is truly yours.
If, then, you put away from this real self
– from your understanding, that is –
everything that others do or say
and everything you yourself did or said in the past,
together with every anxiety about the future,
and everything affecting the body or its partner breath
that is outside your own control,
as well as everything that swirls about you
in the eddy of outward circumstance,
so that the powers of your mind,
kept thus aloof and unspotted from all that destiny can do,
may live their own life in independence,
doing what is just,
consenting to what befalls,
and speaking what is true –
if, I say, you put away from this master-faculty of yours
every such clinging attachment,
and whatever lies in the years ahead
or the years behind,
teaching yourself to become what Empedocles calls
a "totally rounded orb, in its own rotundity joying",
and to be concerned solely with the life which you are now living,
the life of the present moment,
then until death comes
you will be able to pass the rest of your days
in freedom from all anxiety,
and in kindliness and good favour with the deity within you.