Right. Why look back to Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism?
Why would we want to return to one of the last Roman Emperors and a Greek philosophy which personified rigorous self-denial, extreme fortitude and emotional indifference?
One of the very first books I devoured as a college undergrad was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A college professor I admired greatly and have written about in previous posts would liberally quote Aurelius’ pithy observations.
I had walked away from God and all things religious but was ferociously searching to replace the deep faith of my childhood. A search which would last for a very long time. Meanwhile, I encountered friends like Aurelius along the way.
The appeal of Marcus Aurelius [if you have never read Meditations, click here for free PDF] and his underlying philosophy of stoicism are based on three foundations or ‘disciplines’: perception, action and will. Concepts which conflict with much of what is sold as American culture by Hollywood and the main stream media. But intriguing to more than a few of us who see the discrepancy.
- That perception varies from person to person is evident. But why what one person views as a crisis and the next as challenge, not so much. Take failure for example. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma prides himself on the numerous times he has crashed and burned.
Some of the explanation is due to training ourselves in objectivity- an ability to remain detached from events around us. Freeing ourselves from the notion of intrinsic good and evil.
- For Aurelius, our actions are inextricably bound with others. Because we are are all participants in the Logos, the universe is an orderly and hierarchical place. Fighting words to a 21st century American- or wait. If that is true then why are we reading about a resurgence of avid interest in Seneca, Aurelius and other Stoics? Writers with thousands of followers who are looking back from the 21st century to Marcus Aurelius and stoicism.
We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for
others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish. In our
relationships with others we must work for their collective
good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals…
- The last precept of Aurelius and the Stoics is that of will. Hay explains in his preface to the Meditations that while the discipline of action governs those things in our control, that of will determines our response to those events which lie outside our control.
…we must see
things for what they are (here the discipline of perception is
relevant) and accept them, by exercising the discipline of
will, or what Epictetus calls (in a phrase quoted by Marcus)
“the art of acquiescence.” For if we recognize that all events
have been foreseen by the logos and form part of its plan,
and that the plan in question is unfailingly good (as it must
be), then it follows that we must accept whatever fate has in
store for us, however unpleasant it may appear, trusting that,
in Alexander Pope’s phrase, “whatever is, is right.” This
applies to all obstacles and (apparent) misfortunes, and in
particular to death—a process that we cannot prevent, which
therefore does not harm us, and which accordingly we must
accept willingly as natural and proper.
Together, the three disciplines constitute a comprehensive approach to life…
Strangely, when I ponder that question, “Why look back to Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism?” all these years later, I find the three disciplines explained in Hays’ translation of Meditations integrate easily into my Catholic Christianity. With ease, Logos becomes God, even the Body of Christ and the disciplines conform to the work of developing virtue.
And to fit seamlessly into much of what I write today.