Sunday, July 30, 2017

Marcus Aurelius's Meditations

The first thing that struck me about this work was how much it sounds like the Bible.  In several places, Marcus Aurelius admonishes his reader to be ready for death at any point, which is a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.  More often, I find the Meditations to have a resigned tone, reminiscent of Ecclesiastes:  "it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time," which sounds like the oft-repeated "nothing new under the sun" in the Biblical book.   Or a striking passage in the Meditations:  
soon, very soon, thou wilt be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo. And the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling, and like little dogs biting one another, and little children quarrelling, laughing, and then straightway weeping. But fidelity and modesty and justice and truth are fled,
is reminiscent of so many passages in the Bible, such as Eccl. 7:2, "It is  better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone," or 4:16, "There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit."

At other times, the Meditations sounds like something Jesus would have said. "But death certainly," writes Marcus, "and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad."  This brings to mind Matthew 5:45, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."  Or, Marcus Aurelius writes about a person who "seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbours, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the daemon within him," which made me think of Matthew 7:3, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"  In another place, he recounts the prayer of Athenians for rain, and adds, "in truth we ought not to pray at all, or we ought to pray in this simple and noble fashion," much as Jesus admonishes his disciples to pray a simple prayer.

It is not surprising that a Stoic would strike a note of resignation, of course.  What struck me was the religious (I'm tempted to write "quasi-religious") motivation behind accepting fate.  I always thought of Stoicism as a sort of heroic response to fate, as there is no point in getting upset about something that has already happened; and, indeed, occasionally Marcus Aurelius writes as though we should treat the world as indifferent to us.  More often, however, he promotes the idea that everything is connected in a grand plan.  "Consider that everything which happens, happens justly," he says.  So, not only is there no point in complaining about it, it is actually counter-productive since it was right for it to happen that way in any case.

Not only is everything just, it is all within our strength to handle:  "Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear."  This surprised me a lot, because it seems precisely like the sentiment -- "If God gives a cross, he gives the strength to bear it" -- that Dostoevsky mocked in "The Brothers Karamazov."  You might think that someone who expounds this idea would have a very strong sense of providence, but Marcus Aurelius actually seems ambivalent on the subject.  "If the gods have determined about me and about the things which must happen to me," he writes, "they have determined well, for it is not easy even to imagine a deity without forethought."  If the gods have determined about him, he is in good hands.  If not about him in particular, at least they have set up a good general arrangement.

Then again, the gods might not actually exist.  As he writes elsewhere, "either it is a well-arranged universe or a chaos huddled together," and in another place, "either there is providence or atoms."  He attempts to justify his philosophy in either event, but I find some of his arguments pretty weak in the absence of providence.  When he writes, "willingly give thyself up to Clotho, one of the Fates, allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases," it seems to me to matter a great deal whether Clotho is just a personification of random fate, or a deity who is looking after the divine order.

Indeed, I think Marcus Aurelius himself would have trouble following his own philosophy if he were not convinced that there was something divine, or at least transcendent, connecting everything.  He repeatedly returns to the idea that there is a particular order to the universe which is better than disorder:
And so accept everything which happens, even if it seem disagreeable, because it leads to this, to the health of the universe and to the prosperity  and felicity of Zeus (the universe).
I'm not sure what is more striking about this passage:  the fact that he uses "Zeus" to mean the same thing as "the universe," or the fact that he attributes health and prosperity to both.  If he has any idea what the health of the universe would mean, I cannot figure what it would be, yet it seems essential to him.  Everything has to function together, even if it hurts the individual, for the good of the universe.  He particularly repeats the phrase "that which does no harm to the state, does no harm to the citizen," which is something that challenges the modern mind most severely.  A citizen can certainly suffer and die, but if the state is not harmed, then somehow the citizen is not harmed either?  What exactly does "harm" mean in this case?

Apparently it has something to do with our unity with other people.  Marcus Aurelius seems to have convinced himself (or been convinced by teachers) that logic dictates that everyone is interconnected:  "recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice."  And elsewhere, "to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature."  Therefore, what is good for us is to be in harmony with other people, nature, the universe -- however he phrases it at a given time -- and the things that appear bad (pain, death) are not so by this measure.

One essential part of belonging is fulfilling our responsibilities, which include work.  I found the following passage about getting out of bed (something I particularly struggle with) very interesting:
In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?
I am particularly puzzled by the idea of what "human work" is.  I presume he would include in that governing as well as soldiering and farming, but would he include acting, dancing, or making useless trinkets that people buy?  In other words, how can I be certain that what I'm doing really is "human work" and not some waste of time?  This is vitally important, because Marcus Aurelius himself judges a man by what he does:  "every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself."  What if you think you are worth more than the kind of work you find yourself in?

Obviously, I found this the most troubling aspect of the Meditations.  I find it difficult to reconcile myself with the idea of subordinating myself to a larger purpose, but, to the extent I am able to do this, I need to be pretty well convinced that such a purpose exists and is good.  The only purpose that I find in the Meditations is something vague about the health and prosperity of the universe, which doesn't mean anything to me.  At least Christianity gives people a concrete reason to do good.

Marcus Aurelius attempts to build up the idea of a connected universe and a guiding force from his own reason, on a similar principle (but drastically different logic) as Descartes proves God's existence.  "Can a certain order subsist in thee, and disorder in the All?," asks Marcus Aurelius, where "thee" refers to his reader, which I am virtually certain he meant as himself (these notes seem like personal guidance and encouragement).  From there (albeit in a different part of the book) he draws a connection between all intellectual beings, and
If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, the world is in a manner a state.
Obviously, this is a summary of some very serious thinking he has done at greater depth.  The gist is that everything is connected:
In the series of things those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; for this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things, which has only a necessary sequence, but it is a rational connection: and as all existing things are arranged together harmoniously, so the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship.
 And elsewhere he ties this altogether as follows:
For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all  intelligent animals, and one truth
This is really extraordinary, it sounds very much like something a Christian would conclude, only it's not clear what this one God is that Marcus Aurelius is referring to (and indeed elsewhere he insists that gods, plural, exist).  It is almost as though his reason is pushing him beyond his pagan upbringing, but he doesn't bring himself to abandon the ideas that he grew up with.

In my ignorance, I had always thought of Stoicism as a highly individualistic way of dealing with an indifferent fate.  There are, I think, some hints of this attitude in the Meditations.  I particularly like his repeated references to the soul as completely separate from material reality:  "Things themselves touch not the soul, not in the least degree," he says.  This is like idealism, but from a completely inverted perspective:  whereas Schopenhauer talks about how we can't know the things outside us except through the medium of the senses, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes that external things can't touch us, and even the senses are not the "real" us; they are not our soul.  The external world is real enough to him, but we only need to trouble ourselves about it as much as we want to, for "it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul."

There is a touching passage in book 3 in which Marcus Aurelius discusses how even defective things -- those which depart from the norm in some way -- are beautiful in their own right.  This is exceptional, however, because most of the time he is only interested in how everything is in harmony.  The idea that an individual soul is valuable for its own sake, including all of its faults and limitations, does not seem to fit with his philosophy.  It is difficult for someone born after the Romantic era to accept this, and of course it is contrary to the Christian notion of a personal God who cares for every individual.  Marcus Aurelius defines the "self" as the rational part of us; desires are simply a characteristic we share with animals, and there is no room for a distinct individual will.  I was reminded of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, who refuses to accept that 2 times 2 is 4:
Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.
While this seems perfectly natural to me, I have a feeling that it would leave Marcus Aurelius speechless with uncomprehension.  And why shouldn't it?  It makes no sense, but it is a part of our individuality that we understand and accept, to a certain extent.

In one other place, the Meditations touch on a deep modern concern with individualism, sincerity, when he writes that the soul hurts itself when it "does or says anything insincerely and untruly."  But this is the only remark of the sort that I can recall, and it is difficult to tell exactly what he means by it.  For Marcus Aurelius repeatedly says that we should only do good and stay in harmony with other people; can he possibly believe that we can not only do good, but always force our hearts to accept what our lips say and our hands do?  I can't imagine that he would prefer someone to speak harsh words rather than speak insincerely.  I suspect he would simply say that the person should be sincere when he says nice things, but we all know that is not an option that is always available.

One of the more interesting points he makes is that we all live in the present -- "every man lives only this present time, which is an indivisible point" -- and therefore death can never take from us more than that single instant.  He urges us to embrace that:  "Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine thyself to the present."  And while focussing on the present is something that we still try to do, for Marcus Aurelius it seems to be a part of denying our individuality, since he is denying, in a sense, that the person that we were 20 years ago or will be 20 years hence is the same as the person we are now.  Indeed, this is a major part of his consolation:  "Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them."  Death is nothing but another one of these changes, others of which occur all the time to us.  In spite of a sideswipe at Lucretius ("For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. But thou art thinking only of seeds which are cast into the earth or into a womb: but this is a very vulgar notion."), he seems to embrace Lucretius's view that individuals are just chance combinations that appear and disappear with no fanfare.  He certainly does not attack any moral significance to an individual beyond his contribution to universal harmony while he is alive.

Indeed, what difference is there between Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius in the end, if both believe that everything is predetermined by some laws, whether physical, natural, or divine?  And if, as Marcus Aurelius repeatedly says, everything is pre-determined, how can I feel morally obligated to act in a certain way?  This is not a form of Stoicism that attracts me.