Thursday, March 19, 2009
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I don't read a lot of philosophy. I'm not sure why, since philosophy is really the province of the Liberal Arts graduate, and that's what I am. Even worse, I was a political science major, and pol-sci is really just applied philosophy. You ask yourself questions like, "What is man's obligation to man?" and "How can a society best benefit everyone involved in it?" and the next thing you know it's three in the morning and you're on your twelfth cup of Denny's coffee.
Arguing the meaning of life in a diner, however, isn't considered to be "real" philosophy. Philosophy these says means making up your own lexicon, creating words to describe concepts that you have spun out of the rhetorical ether - or, in philosophical terminology, "just made up." So you get phrases in modern philosophy that go on for pages and pages, and have so many recursive clauses that you wind up having to go back to the beginning just to figure out where you left off.
So, if you're like me - and it's not impossible that you are - and you don't feel like delving into the murkiest depths of intellectual waters, I can solidly recommend Marcus Aurelius' immortal Meditations. There is no beginning, there is no end - you can open up the book anywhere, read for a while, and then put it down.
Written back in the 2nd century, Meditations is a collection of Marcus' thoughts on life, existence, and how to be a good and moral man. Some of those observations are long, a page or two, but most of them are just a few lines. It's kind of as though Marcus was hanging out at his camp in Carnuntum and he had a Thought. "Pen!" he would yell, "and paper!" He'd scribble his idea down and put it away to be filed away later. Whether he had any great plans for this collection of ideas, we'll never know. He was an Emperor, of course, and it's pretty normal for Emperors to want to make themselves look brilliant in history. But, as you read the book, you realize that Marcus' mind wasn't on history. Why bother, he'd say. It'll all be the same in a thousand years anyway.
Death is ever-present in this text. When you start to worry about whether you're living up to the example set by your ancestors, don't bother - they're dead and gone, and they couldn't care less about who you have become. Are you always concerned with what people will think of you after you die? Why worry about it? You'll be dead, for one thing, and beyond caring, and in any case whatever you have accomplished will be gone when the last person who remembers you is himself dead.
Marcus is very clear in his views on death: it's part of nature, part of the ceaseless change which controls everything in this world. We came into this world, built from the atoms and essences of the dead who had gone before us, and one day we will return to that ceaselessly changing sea of Nature. Our lives are mere moments when measured against the vastness of eternity, and our powers are meaningless against those of the gods and the world that gave birth to us. "Remember that Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant,' he said. "All the rest of his life's either past and gone, or not yet revealed."
In this way, there are some definite parallels between Marcus' Stoic philosophy and Zen philosophy, though they're centuries apart. Both Zen and Stoicism emphasize living in the present moment - not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. The only time in which you really exist is right now, and so it should be your only concern. Don't let other people's opinions of you govern your feelings - you can't control them, you shouldn't expect to be able to. You can, however, control yourself. "Will anyone sneer at me?" he asks. "That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer."
Yes, this book is very quotable.
Where Stoicism and Zen would probably part ways is on Marcus' reliance on Reason as a supreme governing power. He maintains that a man's reason is the only thing that he can truly claim as his own, and that it should be ready at hand at all times. In any situation, presented with any person or object, the first thing that a person should do is turn his reason upon it. Figure out what it is, at its root, and once you know that, everything else will become clear.
I'm a big fan of Reason. We're humans, and we're bound to believe stupid things from time to time, but we're also possessed of some very clever brains, and an excellent ability to turn those brains on to solving problems. But far too few people actually use those brains. We allow our passions to override our reason and end up doing stupid things to ourselves and each other. As hard as it may be, I'm with Marcus on this one - without reason, we're not really humans. At best, we're children, at worst we're beasts. It is our duty to the world to understand it, without illusion or self-deception.
Frankly, I think Marcus would be very disappointed at how little progress we've made on this regard. I mean, it's been nearly two thousand years, after all, plenty of time to deal with our superstitions and our illusions. On the other hand, I think he'd be flattered that his words had lasted so long and had influenced so many people.
It's a great text, one that calls from the past to remind us of some very important truths - that we are here, now, and we are each in control of our own lives. We are possessed with a limitless ability to understand our universe, and to not use that reason is to waste the best part of ourselves.
"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one."
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Marcus Aurelius at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikiquote
Meditations at Project Gutenberg
Meditations at Librivox
Meditations at Amazon.com