Recently I started reading The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot, which is a fairly scholarly commentary on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations—retranslated by Hadot and Michael Chase. Marcus, you may recall, was the Roman Emperor featured in the movie “Gladiator.” He was shown writing (the Meditations, undoubtedly) in his tent during the campaign against the Germanic huns at the beginning of the movie.
I had read Marcus (might as well call an emperor by his first name, since he isn’t around to throw me to the lions for impertinence) directly before, but Hadot provides a lot of meaty background information about the Stoic philosophy in general, of which the Meditations is a specific instance of how one Stoic, Marcus, lived his life in accord with Stoicism. There is a lot to like in Stoicism. Here’s one example.
The Stoics believe—correctly, I’d say—that we can’t control the sensations of the outside world that enter our consciousness. All we can do is control our judgments and interpretations about what those sensations mean. That is, the outside world offers us information, and it is our job to interpret that information, to give it meaning.
So, Marcus says: “He was sent to jail. What happened? He was sent to jail. But ‘He is unhappy’ is added by oneself [i.e., subjectively].” And, “If you are grieving about some exterior thing, then it is not that thing which is troubling you, but your judgment about that thing.” This is just what modern cognitive therapy teaches, having rediscovered what the Stoics knew two thousand years ago.
I read these quotations several days after I had my pissed-off-at-Microsoft experience (a fairly common experience for almost anyone who uses a computer). I wish I had read Marcus earlier, because I might have saved my irritation for a more worthy object of pissed-offness. Outlook had crashed for some reason, and my computer had directed me to a Microsoft web site where I was supposed to check for updates to Office XP, and thereby supposedly reduce my proneness to future crashes.
OK, I was willing to play that game, and complied with Microsoft’s check-for- updates? thing. Microsoft told me that I needed some humongous cumulative download of Office XP patches/security fixes/and what not. It took forever to retrieve on my slow Internet connection, but finally I had all 6 gigs of it, or whatever. The download then tried to install itself, and did fine until a message came on the screen, “To update Word 2002 insert Microsoft Works Disk 1.” What!!!??? It was late. I was tired. I didn’t want to go search for some old CD. And besides, I was sure, absolutely sure, sure beyond a doubt, that I had installed Word 2002 from an Office XP disk, and didn’t even have a Works disk to my name.
So after I tried to assuage the installer with the Office XP disk, it gave up on me, and said “Installation could not be completed. Try again.” Jesus Christ!!! God damn it!!! Screw you, Microsoft!!! and worse, much worse, coursed across my inflamed consciousness. I fired off an email to Microsoft, cursing them for their incompetence, promising that I would never buy another Microsoft product, damning them for their buggy installation programs that ask you for disks you don’t even have. The rest of the night, and into the morning, I was super irritated at Microsoft and how that idiot company had made me waste so much time on trying to install the Office XP fixes.
And then…the next day I calmed down enough to look in the drawer where I keep my original disks that came with my computer. And there…I found a Microsoft Works disk that had “Word 2002” on the face of it. And after that…I tried reinstalling the download and everything went just fine. And after reading Marcus…I realized that what had happened was, “The download did not install.” Period. End of story. The objective indisputable truth. Everything else that I experienced, all the irritation, the cursing, the feeling of being screwed over by an incompetent corporate giant—all that was my subjective illusory imagination, useless crap. Not only wasn’t it true, it didn’t help at all in what I was trying to do, make my computer work better.
Yesterday we got our new 2004 Toyota Prius, another story for another posting. The only point I want to make right now about the Prius is that as soon as Laurel turned onto our road, eight miles from the dealership, half a mile from home, the “check engine” light went on. And it is still on. Nothing crucial, hopefully. Possibly a gas tank/cap emissions alert that went awry. I’m chilling out about it. What has happened? A warning light on our new car came on right after we bought it. That’s it. Toyota isn’t out to drive us crazy or sell us a lemon. A warning light has come on. Thank you, Marcus. Now, maybe I can go read the front page of the Sunday paper with similar detachment. Or, maybe not.