Sunday, September 11, 2022

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius"Eternalized Review" (ER)

As always, I'm a lazy moose. I read some translation of Meditations long ago, probably in my "I think I'm an atheist, but something in me is rejecting it" phase. The two links above explore some of the thoughts that were flowing through the river of my consciousness then,  and to some degree now. Time can be seen as a river, though I often find the eddies to be the parts of the flow to pay attention to.

Having grown up in a strict Baptist church,  being "saved" by "giving my life to Christ", I ended up with lots of questions. The claim that the Wedding At Cana miracle was changing water into grape juice was dogma in my home church since drinking was prohibited there, seemed
sketchy". For some reason I didn't blog in those days (I worked on an IBM S/3 at the time, a whopping 512K of memory that we had trouble even using on the HUGE model 15D. When there are no graphics and the operating system is written in assembler, memory pressure is much reduced. So good excuse!

 My "deep thinking" about life, the universe and everything" in the late 1970's. early '80's can be somewhat understood by the aside that the  S/3 had a 2 digit display for telling the operators / system programmers what went wrong. The small troop of new hires tasked with minor enhancements and mostly maintenance always wanted to slip a "4Q" halt in. Ah, juvenile humor -- I believe that Marcus, and certainly Christ would admonish against it, though both understand the frailties of human nature, especially in youth. 

Oh how our pitiful human brains work, don't work, and work strangely  -- this book connected me to many past memories. 

Marcus was very aware of the shortness of this life, and the metaphysical (though not necessarily spiritual) uncertainty of death. ER says of Stoicism: 
Logos designates rational and connected thought. It exists in individuals as the faculty of reason and on the cosmos as the rational principle that governs the organisation of the universe. Thus, rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos.

In Christianity, Christ is the logos ... in the form of the Holy Spirit on page 199, Marcus  says "... and obedient to your own daemon (the god that is within you ...". While Marcus seems to beat around the bush a bit, he seems clear on man having a spirit, and there being "god's". If the universe has a logos that governs all, then there is a God. If there is no logos, than all is random. Marcus accepts that as a possibility, however in reading the book, it seems very clear that that he really believes in the gods and the logos, and even that some "god" at least CAN be within you. 

CMC says: 

The ethical preoccupations of Marcus and the New Testament writers are much the same: what it means to be just and good, the importance of living with purpose and without luxury, the requirements of stewardship and serving others, the role of prayer and Providence, the danger of making false value judgments and blaming others, the need to control desire and the passions, etc. Of course, there are important differences, and therein lie the distinctions that cast Christianity in bold relief and help to explain why Christianity captured the moral imagination of the ancient world in a way that Stoicism failed to do. These distinctions may also offer some prophetic insights into the fate of Stoicism’s dramatic resurgence in our secular age.
A prime dilemma of the modern age is that man by nature seeks to judge, but by what standard? Matter and science say nothing of good nor evil. If one assumes "telos" as Marcus does, perhaps we can convince ourselves that we are good by nature. The belief in "the noble savage" .... the idea that man is good, but society corrupts him. 

EC says: 
Marcus insists that we always follow Nature, as it is good and rational – driven by logos. Since we are all interconnected, man is good by nature and nothing natural is evil.

On the list of philosophical, theological and political conundrums, man being "basically good" vs "basically fallen or evil"  is a primary question. If nature or natures god are "good", why is there evil in the world? The theological and philosophical study of this question is theodicy. Verty worthy to consider, but way too complicated for a blog post.

As James Madison said in Federalist 51, "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

While Marcus may firmly wish, and even believe, that his basic nature is "good", his accepting the task of Roman emperor and expanding the empire to its greatest extent (his reign was one of continuous warfare)  shows that by action, his beliefs were not in alignment with his actions. One of the base issues of being a human seeking "the good". 

Are men and philosophies to be judged by what they do, or by what they wish to do? Certainly something to be meditated on. 

This is a very human problem, and for me one that helped convince me that I needed an internal "spirit of truth" to improve the course of my life, as well as a practice to allow that spirit vs my weak flesh to improve my conformance to the good.  As Paul says in Romans 7 15-20:

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

The only time in the book that Marcus mentions Christianity is on page 180: 

A soul is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist; but so this readiness comes from a man's own judgment, not from the mere stubbornness, as with the Christians, but considerably and with dignity and in a way to persuade another without a tragic show. 

My interpretation of that statement is that while Marcus tried to value the holding of many possible spiritual realities (eg the soul being extinguished, dispersed, or continue to exist), he did not like the specifics of Christianity -- in fact persecution of Christians increased under his rule. 

On page 148 we find: 

When another blames you or hates you, or when men say about you anything injurious, approach their poor souls, penetrate within, and see what kind of men they are. You will discover that there is no reason to take any trouble that these men may have this or that opinion about you. However, you must be well disposed towards them, for by nature they are friends. And the gods too aid them in all ways, by dreams, by signs, towards the attainment of those things on which they set a value.

We might summarize that with "love your neighbor as yourself"  ... even if he is wrong, a slanderer,  a person having strong beliefs in opposition to yours, etc. If we were all solidly practicing Stoics or Christians, toleration would abound, and the realization that we are fellow travelers on the sinking boat of mortality. In the physical world, there are no survivors, and Marcus does a good job of clearly pointing out the importance of keeping that perspective before you. 

In Roman Stoicism there are 3 principles (from ER): 

The first one is the discipline of perception. It requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought. It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is to exercise control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.
The second one is the discipline of action. It relates to our relationship with other human beings. Marcus frequently repeats that we were made not for ourselves but for others, our nature is fundamentally unselfish. However, our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals; it means that we must treat them as they deserve.
The third one is the discipline of will. While the discipline of action governs our approach to the things in our control, those that we do; the discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or by nature).

 The translation I read has good reviews and I found it very readable. Having at least a passing understanding of Stoicism in these contentious times seems an aid to discipline of perception, a worthy goal.