Saturday, September 30, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:36-37

luck is the good fortune you determine for yourself
Don't let the impression of other people's grief carry you away indiscriminately. Help them, yes, as best you can and as the case deserves, even if their grief is for the loss of something indifferent: but do not imagine their loss as any real harm that is the wrong way of thinking. Rather, you should be like the old man in the play who reclaimed at the end his foster-child's favourite toy, never forgetting that it was only a toy. So there you are, broadcasting your pity on the hustings - have you forgotten, man, what these things are worth? 'Yes, but they are important to these folk.' Is that any reason for you to join their folly?

'There was a time when I met luck at every turn.' But luck is the good fortune you determine for yourself: and good fortune consists in good inclinations of the soul, good impulses, good actions.

In the first passage, Marcus tackles dealing with impressions other peoples' grief may cause.  In a word - don't let others' grief spill into your impressions.  You know better.  However, that does not mean you have to treat others coldly.  You can have empathy and allow the grieving person to grieve over loss of indifferents.  But you don't have to go so far as agree with the negative assents (that the loss is bad) or emotions or even that these things truly matter to a Stoic.

The second passage reminds me of Harvey Dent (from Batman), who has a double-headed coin.  No matter which side lands, he wins.  He makes his own luck - it's all about perception.  Marcus, more appropriately, states good luck comes from a good attitude, good desires and good actions.

(see also Citadel p. 217)

Friday, September 29, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:34-35

You can always ensure the right current to your life if you can first follow the right path - if, that is, your judgements and actions follow the path of reason. There are two things common to the souls of all rational creatures, god or man: they are immune to any external impediment, and the good they seek resides in a just disposition and just action, with this the limit of their desire.

If this is no wrongdoing of mine, nor the result of any wrong done to me, and if the community is not harmed, then why do I let it trouble me? And what is the harm that can be done to the community?

These two passages are largely centered around the discipline of assent (controlling our judgments and perceptions).  There are also references to the discipline of action ("just action") and the discipline of desire ("with this the limit of their desire").

Nothing outside our "inner citadel" can harm our soul.  We, as individuals, are the only ones who can control our perceptions.  Hence Marcus says, "all rational creatures, god [and men] ... are immune to any external impediment."  We get to decide our attitude.  We get to decide how to react to events and things out of our control.

Furthermore, we as individuals, can choose to have a "just disposition" (good attitude) and when and how we serve others ("just action").

We limit our desires to what is - to what happens.  We should love what happens - amor fati.

In summary: have a good attitude; serve others; love your fate.

In second passage (35), Marcus discusses a specific aspect of the discipline of assent.  Why let anything bother you if no harm has been done to the community and you have done no harm?

(see also Citadel p. 241)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:33

Thomas Cole - Desolation
In no time at all ashes or bare bones, a mere name or not even a name: and if a name, only sound and echo. The 'prizes' of life empty, rotten, puny: puppies snapping at each other, children squabbling, laughter turning straight to tears. And Faith, Honour, Justice and Truth 'fled up to Olympus from the widewayed earth'.

So what is there left to keep us here, if the objects of sense are ever changeable and unstable, if our senses themselves are blurred and easily smudged like wax, if our very soul is a mere exhalation of blood, if success in such a world is vacuous? What, then? A calm wait for whatever it is, either extinction or translation. And until the time for that comes, what do we need? Only to worship and praise the gods, and to do good to men - to bear and forbear. And to remember that all that lies within the limits of our poor carcass and our little breath is neither yours nor in your power.

Break things down (to tear down impressions and to recognize what truly matters) - this is what Marcus does with the whole lot of life in this passage.  Life is short and shortly, our body, flesh, bones will turn to dust and our names will eventually be forgotten.  People will pursue fame and other prizes in life, but after the march of time, those awards are "empty, rotten, puny."  The virtues, however, will endure.

If this life is so "changeable and unstable", what should be our focus if not body, fame, fortune?  We ought to accept our fate - calmly accept that we will die.  And while we wait that moment, we walk that path the sage trods - we focus on virtue, help others and always remember to accept and love our fate.

Regarding the 'fled up to Olympus from the widewayed earth' quote, it seems to come from Hesiod, Works and Days. (source link)
Hesiod, Works and Days 172 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
[N.B. In the following passage Nemesis withdraws from earth in response to the growing corruption of mankind. In Aratus and Ovid, see below, it is Astraia who departs.] 
"Would that I were not among the men of the fifth age [i.e. the current era which was the fifth age of mankind], but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day . . . 
[And they will deteriorate even further over time so that :] Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Zelos (Envy), foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And Nemesis (Just Retribution) and Aidos (Respect), shrouding their bright forms in pale mantles, shall go from the wide-wayed earth back to Olympos, forsaking the whole race of mortal men, and all that will be left by them to mankind will be wretched pain. And there shall be no defence against evil."
(see also Citadel p. 113, 165, 258, 266)
(more information about Desolation by Thomas Cole)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:32

Why do unskilled and ignorant minds confound the skilful and the wise? Well, what is the mind of true skill and wisdom? It is the mind which knows the beginning and the end, and knows the Reason which informs all of existence and governs the Whole in appointed cycles through all eternity.

Hadot has an interesting take on this passage.  Marcus seeks to understand why unskilled, ignorant people confound the wise.  His answer: because the soul already "knows" (accepts Stoic doctrine) - almost alluding to the fact of a prior life that is savvy to ultimate purpose.

Full passage by Hadot:
Other themes also seem to be characteristic of Book V. For example, it contains two allusions to a Stoic cosmological doctrine which Marcus mentions very rarely: that of the eternal return. Usually, Marcus imagines the metamorphoses of things and the destiny of souls within the "period" of the world in which we are now living, without worrying about the eternal return of this period. This is what he does first, in V, 13, where he begins by affirming that each part of the universe, as it is born and dies, is transformed into another part of the universe. Yet he remarks:  
"There is nothing to prevent one from talking like this, even if the world is administered in accordance with determinate periods." 
In this case, he means, all the parts of the universe will be reabsorbed at the end of each period into the original Fire-Reason, before they are reborn from this same Fire in the following period. Elsewhere, in V, 32, we get a glimpse of the immensity of the space that opens up before the soul which "knows"-that is, which accepts Stoic doctrine:  
"It knows the beginning and the end, and the Reason which traverses universal substance, and which administers the All throughout eternity, in accordance with determinate periods." 
We do not find another allusion to the eternal return until XI, l, 3. 
(see Citadel p. 267

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:30-31

The intelligence of the Whole is a social intelligence. Certainly it has made the lower for the sake of the higher, and set the higher in harmony with each other. You can see how it has subordinated some creatures, coordinated others, given each its proper place, and brought together the superior beings in unity of mind.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been 'say no evil, do no evil'? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind.

If we keep in mind, that the whole universe is of one mind - one desire - then we can gladly accept our fate and place in life.  We are meant for each other; and some minds are on a different level, so to speak.  A crude example: the food chain.  Plants were made to be consumed by animals.  Horses were made to be beasts to help humans cultivate plants.

With regard for humans interacting with humans; we are made for each other.  And in some cases, we were meant to lead others and sometimes we were meant to follow others.  In every case, we can evaluate our duties in relation to parents, siblings, teachers, employees.

Lastly, praise yourself when you live virtuously (when you have endured, chosen wisely, disregarded pleasure, served others).

Monday, September 25, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:29

You can live here in this world just as you intend to live when you have left it. But if this is not allowed you, then you should depart life itself - but not as if this were some misfortune. 'The fire smokes and I leave the house.' Why think this any big matter? But as long as no such thing drives me out, I remain a free man and no one will prevent me doing what I wish to do: and my wish is to follow the nature of a rational and social being.

This passage, essentially, says this to me, "I will do what I must, as long as I can.  And what must I do?  I must follow the nature of a rational and social being."

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:28

Are you angry with the man who smells like a goat, or the one with foul breath? What will you have him do? That's the way his mouth is, that's the way his armpits are, so it is inevitable that they should give out odours to match. 'But the man is endowed with reason', you say, 'and if he puts his mind to it he can work out why he causes offence.' Well, good for you! So you too are no less endowed with reason: bring your rationality, then, to bear on his rationality - show him, tell him. If he listens, you will cure him, and no need for anger. Neither hypocrite nor whore.

We are made for each other.  Don't be upset when people don't take care of themselves.  Use your reason, as best you can, to help them see their folly.  Then leave it as it.  The other person can accept the advice or ignore it.  But don't be upset.

Regarding the sharp, last statement ("neither hypocrite nor whore"), he's trying to show the right, middle path.  We should not be a hypocrite (a phony, or fraud - someone who may profess that we should help other people, but does not) nor should we be a whore (flaunting, bearing all, no filters).  No anger; just plain reason and action.

(see also Citadel p. 225-226, 258).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:27

'Live with the gods.' He lives with the gods who consistently shows them his soul content with its lot, and performing the wishes of that divinity, that fragment of himself which Zeus has given each person to guard and guide him. In each of us this divinity is our mind and reason.

Another passage from Marcus that screams amor fati.  You 'live with the gods' when you accept and love your fate.  This means being 'content with your lot' and doing what the gods wish you to do.

What is unique about our nature as human beings?  Our ability to reason and think.  This is the divine portion in us that sets us apart from so many other living organisms.  We live according to nature when we use what nature gave to us - our ability to think and reason.

(see also Citadel p. 123, 265-266

Friday, September 22, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:26

The directing and sovereign part of your soul must stay immune to any current in the flesh, either smooth or troubled, and keep its independence: it must define its own sphere and confine those affections to the parts they affect. When, though, as must happen in a composite unity, these affections are transmitted to the mind along the reverse route of sympathy, then you must not try to deny the perception of them: but your directing mind must not of itself add any judgement of good or bad.

The battle is constant - to try to remain independent from emotions that occur within us involuntarily.  So many times, people act and react without thought.  The discipline of assent teaches us to assert our own will and conclusions over our emotions and reactions.  From pleasure to pain, from tranquility to surprise; we should discipline our directing mind to not be swayed by these raw emotions that stir within us.

Regarding this specific passage, Hadot says,
The guiding principle draws a border, as it were, between sensitive emotions and its freedom of judgment, by refusing to consent or give its assent to judgments which would attribute a positive or negative value to the pleasures or pains that occur within the body. This border does not prevent the guiding principle from perceiving everything that goes on within the body, and thereby it ensures the unity of consciousness of the entire living being, just as, within the cosmic living being, everything goes back to the single consciousness of the guiding principle of the universe (IV, 40). From this new perspective, Marcus continues, we cannot prevent sensations from penetrating within the guiding principle, since they are natural phenomena; nevertheless, the guiding principle must not add its own value-judgments concerning them.
(see Citadel p. 116)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:24-25

Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny - what fraction of that are you?

Another does wrong. What is that to me? Let him see to it: he has his own disposition, his own action. I have now what universal nature wishes me to have now, and I do what my own nature wishes me to do now.

When you are feeling stressed or anxious, think on the vastness of time and space.  This will have the effect of diminishing the importance of whatever it is distressing you.  Whenever you are feeling overjoy or exuberant, also think on the vastness of time and space.  This will level your head and prevent haughtiness.

Others will do what they must.  I too will do what I must (according to my nature).  I wish only what the universe wishes of me.

(see also Citadel p. 254,  266)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:23

Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being, are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot - as if this was anything lasting or likely to trouble him for long.

Change is the one constant in the Universe.  What a folly it is, then, to hope for things to remain unchanged.  What a folly it is to hope that "this one moment" might last forever.  What folly to yearn for the past or hope for the future.  And vice versa - what folly to disdain and hate the present moment because you're in pain.  What folly to wish for change now - because it will come anyway.

The lesson here is to embrace the change - love it!  Seize the day (now)!  Don't seize tomorrow or yearn for yesterday.  Focus on the now; focus on what you can do now.  Sure, plan for the future, but not too much at the expense of now.

To help you embrace the now, reflect often on how life and everything is like a river.  It flows and moves endlessly.  Time is the same - it will always move along.  Therefore, embrace now - this minute, this hour, this day.  What happens now is sufficient for your attention.  Don't let your focus spill over into yesterday or tomorrow.

(see also Citadel p. 118, 253)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:22

What is not harmful to the city does not harm the citizen either. Whenever you imagine you have been harmed, apply this criterion: if the city is not harmed by this, then I have not been harmed either. If on the other hand harm is done to the city, you should not be angry, but demonstrate to the doer of this harm what he has failed to see himself.

This is an interesting perspective, especially in this day of terrorism.  The news is peppered with reports of acts of terrorism on a monthly basis.  Or, we are bombarded with reports of North Korea developing nuclear missiles or launching ICBMs over Japan.  What could harm the city (obliterate it) does indeed harm the citizen.  I don't think, if it ever gets to that point, that we'd need to "demonstrate" to Kim Jong-un "what he has failed to see himself."  This is an extreme example and I also don't think this is what Marcus intended in meaning.

Rather, these "harmful" acts that could happen to us individually, should be viewed through the question, "does it harm the city."  If it doesn't, no big deal.  If it does, then don't get upset, rather try to teach the one who committed the "harmful" acts, a better way.

(see also Citadel p. 67)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:21

Revere the ultimate power in the universe: this is what makes use of all things and directs all things. But similarly revere the ultimate power in yourself: this is akin to that other power. In you too this is what makes use of all else, and your life is governed by it.

Continuing with the idea of "the obstacle becoming the way", Marcus reminds us that our directing mind's ability to "make use of all things" and the ability of the mind to "direct all things" (i.e. taking any event or circumstance and making it work for you as opposed to thinking the event or circumstance is opposing you) is the ultimate power in the universe.  This power is in us.  We have the ability to view life and change and adapt our opinion to what is advantageous to us.

Comically, Wally & Asok get the idea.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:20

In one respect man is something with the closest affinity to us, in that it is our duty to do good to men and tolerate them. But in so far as some are obstacles to my proper work, man joins the category of things indifferent to me - no less than the sun, the wind, a wild animal. These can impede some activity, yes, but they form no impediments to my impulse or my disposition, because here there is conditional commitment and the power of adaptation. The mind adapts and turns round any obstacle to action to serve its objective: a hindrance to a given work is turned to its furtherance, an obstacle in a given path becomes an advance.

As mentioned many times already, humans were made for humans - our purpose is to interact and help each other.  It is part of our nature - it's what makes us human.  As Marcus says, "it is our duty to do good to men and tolerate them."

He then goes on to mention that other humans can be obstacles to us (in action), but they do not impede our ability to have a good attitude.  Furthermore, our mind - our rational nature - can turn these obstacles into advantages or lessons.  It is this passage that Ryan Holiday based his popular book The Obstacle is the Way.  His book is chock-full of stories about people who have used obstacles to their advantage.

A short, more modern-day cliche, way to put this idea is, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade."  This idea of the obstacle becoming the way is all about attitude.  It's about making the most out of events that don't go as expected.  Life is full of stories of people who seemingly failed at one endeavor, only to find that along they way, they found their way.  Another book that is full of these types of examples, is Scott Adams' book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

My advice to you is: start paying attention to successful peoples' stories.  Almost always, you will find "failure" and "defeat" and those same failures and defeats become the the path that leads them to how they became successful.

(see also Citadel p. 197)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:19 The Inner Citadel

Things of themselves cannot touch the soul at all. They have no entry to the soul, and cannot turn or move it. The soul alone turns and moves itself, making all externals presented to it cohere with the judgements it thinks worthy of itself.

With the passage from Book 5:19, Marcus will go on to repeat this same thought another 17 times throughout his Meditations (see end of post for complete list).

This idea, that all our troubles, fears and anxieties come from within - they originate from in our own head - is crucial to the philosophy of Stoicism.  Pierre Hadot's commentary on Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is entitled The Inner Citadel and his chapter on the discipline of assent includes the same.  The discipline of assent is nothing more than training your mind to be an inner citadel - a mental fortress that is strong against any attack and that the only way it could fall is from within.

Hadot fully explains (p. 106-107),
In order to understand what Marcus Aurelius means when he says that things cannot touch the soul and are outside of us, we must bear in mind that the word "soul" could have two meanings for the Stoics. In the first place, it was a reality made of air (pneuma) which animates our body and receives the impressions, or phantasiai, from exterior objects. This is often what Marcus means by "soul." Here, however, when he speaks about "us" and about the soul, he is thinking of that superior or guiding part of the soul which the Stoics called the hegemonikon. It alone is free, because it alone can give or refuse its assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object is which is represented by a given phantasia. This borderline which objects cannot cross, this inviolable stronghold of freedom, is the limit of what I shall refer to as the "inner citadel." Things cannot penetrate into this citadel: that is, they cannot produce the discourse which we develop about things, or the interpretation which we give of the world and its events. As Marcus says, the things outside of us "stay still"; they "do not come to us"; rather, in a way, "it is we who go toward them" (XI, II).
(see also Citadel p. 41, 105, 108)

from page 41 in The Inner Citadel:
the dogma according to which our troubles come only from our judgments, and that things do not penetrate within us (IV, 3, 10), recurs eighteen times in the course of the Meditations, sometimes repeated almost word for word, and sometimes in slightly different form (V, 19; VI, 52; VII, 2; VIII, 47; IX, 13; IX, 15; XI, 11; XI, 16; XII, 22; XII, 25; IV, 7; IV, 39, 2; V, 2; VII, 14; VII, 16; VIII, 29; VIII, 40; VIII, 49).

Friday, September 15, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:17-18

To pursue the impossible is madness: and it is impossible for bad men not to act in character.

Nothing happens to any creature beyond its own natural endurance. Another has the same experience as you: either through failure to recognize what has happened to him, or in a display of courage, he remains calm and untroubled. Strange, then, that ignorance and pretension should be stronger than wisdom.

In the first passage, better said would be, "don't expect bad men to act good."  What bad men do is out of your control; and for you to expect them to act good will cause you to be "mad" (fearful, anxious, frustrated, etc).

On a related note, whether you are liberal or conservative, Massimo Pigliucci wrote a very good article that applies to everyone.  The United States had 8 years of Reagan (conservative), then 4 years of Bush (conservative), then 8 years of Clinton (liberal), then 8 years of Bush Jr. (conservative), then 8 years of Obama (liberal) and now we have Trump who is a Republican now (was a Democrat previously).  Generally speaking, a sizable chunk of the nation will be agreeable with the president while another sizable chunk of the nation will not be agreeable with the president.  In other words, a sizable chunk of the nation will think the current president is a "bad man".  So the advice Massimo gives is applicable all the time for some sizable chunk of the nation.

In the second passage, Marcus reminds us that we can accept our fate in our natural abilities to endure courageously.  Either you perish (mentally speaking) under the crushing weight of some event or you courageously endure it and become stronger.

I think it is good to note that even in extreme examples (concentration camp prisoner, child abuse, human trafficking, etc), technically speaking, a human can endure well those situations - think Viktor Frankl or James Stockdale or Elizabeth Smart.  Personally, I think the percentage of people forced into these situations may be relatively small today in the year 2017.  (link to /r/stoicism discussion on this topic).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:16

Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts. So dye your own with a succession of thoughts like these. For example: where life can be lived, so can a good life; but life can be lived in a palace; therefore a good life can be lived in a palace. Again: each creature is made in the interest of another; its course is directed to that for which it was made; its end lies in that to which its course is directed; and where its end is, there also for each is its benefit and its good. It follows that the good of a rational creature is community. It has long been shown that we are born for community - or was it not clear that inferior creatures are made in the interest of the superior, and the superior in the interest of each other? But animate is superior to inanimate, and rational to the merely animate.

This passage is fairly clear and straight-forward.

rephrased: you are what you think.

Marcus goes on to advise himself of thoughts he should repeat often.  You can live a good life anywhere if you live a life of virtue (courage, temperance, courage, justice).  It does not matter if you live in poverty or in a palace.

His second thought he repeats often to himself is, each person is made for the interest (to help) one another.  We (humans) are meant to be a community and to help each other.

(see also Citadel p. 29, 43, 103, 160, 267, 291)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

worlds colliding, end of world and dichotomy of control

some 10 year old kid told my two youngest kids about some september 23 end of world "prophecy" and they started worrying about it.  they also got this idea that some planet was going to come crashing into earth.  after a lot of discussion about how crazy these notions are, the conversation shifted to the stoic flow chart.

assuming there is some issue causing fear, worry, anxiety, then we ask the question: can i control this thing?

if yes; then develop a plan of action to address your fear, worry and anxiety.

if no; then think of things you can do to mitigate your fear, worry and anxiety.  if nothing else, the one thing you can focus on and control is your attitude.  you can choose to allow the fear, worry and anxiety to take control of your life, in which case you are suffering twice; or you can view this "obstacle" as a way through it and focus on what you can learn, how this thing will make you stronger or more resilient.  develop a plan to practice a positive outlook and attitude and then execute that plan.

Commentary on Meditations: B5:15

"these aren't the things you should focus on"
One should pay no attention to any of those things which do not belong to man's portion incumbent on him as a human being. They are not demanded of a man; man's nature does not proclaim them; they are not consummations of that nature. Therefore they do not constitute man's end either, nor yet any means to that end - that is, good. Further, if any of these things were incumbent on a man, then it would not have been incumbent on him to disdain or resist them; we would not commend the man who shows himself free from need of them; if these things were truly 'goods', a man who fails to press for his full share of any of them could not be a good man. But in fact the more a man deprives himself of these or suchlike, or tolerates others depriving him, the better a man he is.

What are these "things" that belong and don't belong "to man's portion"?  To answer that question, we should turn to Epictetus, who says at the very beginning of the Enchiridion:
Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. 
To rephrase Marcus, one should 'pay no attention' to our bodies, possessions, our reputations, our public offices and anything not of our own doing.  Man was not created for his body, possessions, reputation or for public office - these are not the end or purpose of man.  What we should focus on are things in our control - our impulses, desires, aversions and our opinions.

Lastly, let me comment on paying no attention to our bodies, possessions and reputations.  Some might ask in shock, "so I should not care about my body?!"  There is a nuance to understanding this.  Would you agree that you have little to no control over whether you get cancer or not?  You could live an entirely healthy, fit life and still have a stroke and die (like my son's soccer coach).  Indeed you can control how you eat and exercise and sleep, but ultimately you don't have full control over your body.  The same reasoning can be applied to possessions and reputations.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:14

Reason and the art of reasoning are faculties self-determined by their own nature and their own products. They start from the relevant premise and follow the path to the proposed end. That is why acts of reason are called 'right' acts, signifying the Tightness of the path thus followed.

Like rays of light from the sun, 'right acts' of virtue just are.  From inception of thought (reason in man) to the carrying out of the act ('the proposed end), they are one and the same.  No context is needed.  They stand alone and attain their own end.

(see also Citadel p. 242)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:13 eternal return or recurrence

I am made up of the causal and the material. Neither of these will disappear into nothing, just as neither came to be out of nothing. So every part of me will be assigned its changed place in some part of the universe, and that will change again into another part of the universe, and so on to infinity. A similar sequence of change brought me into existence, and my parents before me, and so back in another infinity of regression. Nothing forbids this assertion, even if the universe is subject to the completion of cycles.

The discipline of assent directs us to 'break things down' into parts.  We should truly try to see things as they are, and not add faulty impressions on top of things and ideas.  When it comes to our life and our existence, we ought to apply the discipline of assent too.

We may think of ourselves as so important - a king, a queen, a president, a diplomat, a wealthy landowner, a CEO or vice president, a very well-paid manager, an NFL quarterback, an all-star basketball player in the NBA, an Olympic gold medalist, a celebrity, a movie star, mayor - I could do this all day.  No matter how much importance you put on your life, no one can dispute that you are nothing more than water, carbon, stardust ... this directing mind or soul, inside a bag of bones carrying meat, living on a rock flying through space.  And furthermore, you have no power or control over what happens to that bag of bones on a rock floating in space.

Marcus, along with the Stoics, seems to think that we live multiple iterations of our life - that the universe expands and contracts and all that has happened will happen again.  This is called eternal return.  The link provided does a nice job summarizing this concept.  Also see this link for a couple of articles on the idea of eternal return (especially read the one call Eternal Recurrence: Nietzsche and the Stoics).

So, what does this idea of eternal return have to do with living now?  In the article I linked to above, Nietzsche asks the question: what if you knew you had to live the same life, over and over and over again?  I suppose many would shun the thought, thinking only of the suffering they've had to endure.  But what if you could 'pass the test' and accept your fate (amor fati) and turn your life into a work of art?  What if you could realize you truly have no control over the fact that the universe repeats itself endlessly?  What if you could realize that it is your opinion of your fate that could be flipped to an accepting and even loving opinion?  Would this not aid you in your quest to find contentment and happiness?

I'll finish with a quote from the Eternal Recurrence: Nietzsche and the Stoics article, which does a nice job summarizing the Stoic point of view.
The Stoics had their own way of passing the ‘eternal recurrence test’, differing to be sure from Nietzsche’s but requiring just as much psychic effort and self-fashioning. Their strategy was to train themselves to look at everything from the perspective of universal Nature. If, as they insisted, this is really the best of all possible worlds, governed by a perfect divine Providence, then anything that actually happens at any point must be the best thing that could happen at that point. Certain things may look negative to us, but that is merely a result of our looking at them from within a limited human perspective; could we but see them as God sees them, we would perceive how they are indeed for the best, and we would be able to desire them as God desires them. Clearly it is not easy to acquire such an attitude in respect of all things that happen in our world, so the Stoics performed spiritual exercises to help them; much of what Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations amounts to an effort to escape the limits of his own viewpoint and reform his consciousness in likeness to God’s. ... Both strategies for embracing eternal recurrence are an ongoing effort to change the way we perceive, and both acknowledge that this is not a simple matter, for the means of re-fashioning our minds are never simply given to us – we have to be creative.
(see also Citadel p. 267)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:12

Here is a way to understand what sort of things the majority take to be 'goods'. If you think of the true goods there are wisdom, for example, self-control, justice, courage - with these in your mind you could not give any credence to the popular saying of  'too many goods to make room', because it will not apply. But bearing in mind what the majority see as goods you will hear and readily accept what the comic poet says as a fair comment. Even the majority can intuit this difference. Otherwise this saying would not both cause offence and rejection, while at the same time we take it as a telling and witty comment on wealth and the privileges of luxury and fame. Go on, then, and ask whether we should value and judge as goods those things which, when we have thought of them, would properly apply to their owner the saying, 'He is so rich, he has no room to shit.'

Virtue is the sole good.  If you want a detailed of explanation about this, see this Reddit post.  You can also read the entire chapter called Joy and Virtue in The Inner Citadel by Hadot.

In this passage, Marcus quite simply delineates what truly is good.  He lists out the four main virtues (wisdom, discipline, justice and courage).  Then he applies a popular saying to both these virtues and to indifferents.

Applied to wealth or health:
- she is so rich, she has no room for anything else.
- he is so strong and has so many muscles, he can't even walk normal.

Applied to courage or self-control:
- he has so much courage, he has no place to sit??
- she has so much self-control, she can't even walk??

When applied to indifferents, indeed you can have too much.  But when applied to a virtue, it's nonsensical.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:11

To what use, then, am I now putting my soul? Ask yourself this question on every occasion. Examine yourself. 'What do I now have in this part of me called the directing mind? What sort of soul do I have after all? Is it that of a child? A boy? A woman? A despot? A beast of the field? A wild animal?'

An excellent question to keep at the forefront of your mind at all times!

How am I using my soul (directing mind) now?

We are meant to think and have self-reflection.  It is a quality almost all animals do not have.  Humans have the ability to reason and think.  This is our nature.  If we fail to act accordingly, we are not living in accordance with the Whole or our nature.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:10

Realities are wrapped in such a veil (as it were) that several philosophers of distinction have thought them altogether beyond comprehension, while even the Stoics think them hard to comprehend. And every assent we may give to our perceptions is fallible: the infallible man does not exist. Pass, then, to the very objects of our experience - how short-lived they are, how shoddy: a catamite, a whore, a thief could own them. Go on now to the characters of your fellows: it is hard to tolerate even the best of them, not to speak of one's difficulty in enduring even oneself.

In all this murk and dirt, in all this flux of being, time, movement, things moved, I cannot begin to see what on earth there is to value or even to aim for. Rather the opposite: one should console oneself with the anticipation of natural release, not impatient of its delay, but taking comfort in just these two thoughts. One, that nothing will happen to me which is not in accordance with the nature of the Whole: the other, that it is in my control to do nothing contrary to my god and the divinity within me - no one can force me to this offence.

We may worry and add our opinion on many things and we may be wrong about our perceptions.  We need to understand that we are fallible and prone to mistakes.

Furthermore, we need to realize this life is short-lived.  And it is full of ornery people, including ourselves.

Marcus finds little to no value in all this.  One ought to console oneself that we will naturally be released from this life, according to nature.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:9

Do not give up in disgust or impatience if you do not find action on the right principles consolidated into a habit in all that you do. No: if you have taken a fall, come back again, and be glad if most of your actions are on the right side of humanity. And love what you return to. Do not come back to philosophy as schoolboy to tutor, but rather as a man with ophthalmia returns to his sponge and salve, or another to his poultice or lotion. In this way you will prove that obedience to reason is no great burden, but a source of relief. Remember too that philosophy wants only what your nature wants: whereas you were wanting something unnatural to you. Now what could be more agreeable than the needs of your own nature? This is the same way that pleasure trips us: but look and see whether there is not something more agreeable in magnanimity, generosity, simplicity, consideration, piety. And what is more agreeable than wisdom itself, when you reflect on the sure and constant flow of our faculty for application and understanding?

We will fail.  The test then becomes: how do we react to failure?  We can wallow in pity or we can pick ourselves up.  If we choose to pick ourselves up, we learn at least two important things.

First, we learn the process of recovery.  There are those who fail at an objective and then they fail twice by giving up altogether on achieving the objective.  This is, in a sense, a doubling down on failure.  Why make your original failure worse by failing again?  The more logical approach is to simply try again.

Secondly, before trying again, find lessons in the failure so you can try to avoid it in the future.  The stoics suggest daily meditation and daily debriefs.  In your daily debriefs, don't be overly critical of yourself.  Rather, taking a 'coaching mindset' approach and help yourself by thinking about how you could have done better, what was the cause of the failure, how can you avoid it in the future.  Also, praise yourself for the good you've done.  Positive praise is often more potent than negative criticism.

One of my favorite movies is Batman Begins; and one of my favorite scenes from that movie is the lesson Bruce Wayne's dad teachings him.  "Why do we fall?  So we can learn to pick ourselves up!"

(see also Citadel p. 239, 241)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:8 - prescriptions and amor fati

Just as it is commonly said that Asclepius has prescribed someone horse-riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot, so we could say that the nature of the Whole has prescribed him disease, disablement, loss, or any other such affliction. In the first case 'prescribed' means something like this: 'ordered this course for this person as conducive to his health'. In the second the meaning is that what happens to each individual is somehow arranged to conduce to his destiny. We speak of the fitness of  these happenings as masons speak of the 'fit' of squared stones in walls or pyramids, when they join each other in a defined relation.

In the whole of things there is one harmony: and just as all material bodies combine to make the world one body, a harmonious whole, so all causes combine to make Destiny one harmonious cause. Even quite unsophisticated people intuit what I mean. They say: 'Fate brought this on him.' Now if 'brought', also 'prescribed'. So let us accept these prescriptions just as we accept those of Asclepius - many of them too are harsh, but we welcome them in the hope of health. 

You should take the same view of the process and completion of the design of universal nature as you do of your own health: and so welcome all that happens to you, even if it seems rather cruel, because its purpose leads to the health of the universe and the prosperity and success of Zeus. He would not bring this on anyone, if it did not also bring advantage to the Whole: no more than any given natural principle brings anything inappropriate to what it governs.

So there are two reasons why you should be content with your experience. One is that this has happened to you, was prescribed for you, and is related to you, a thread of destiny spun for you from the first by the most ancient causes. The second is that what comes to each individual is a determining part of the welfare, the perfection, and indeed the very coherence of that which governs the Whole. Because the complete Whole is maimed if you sever even the tiniest fraction of its connection and continuity: this is true of its constituent parts, and true likewise of its causes. And you do sever something, to the extent that you can, whenever you fret at your lot: this is, in a sense, a destruction.

This passage screams amor fati!  People grumble, complain and whine all the time about pretty much anything.  I am just as guilty as the next guy of complaining about things.  I am writing this post on the evening of September 5, 2017 on the 2nd floor of my home.  My entire bottom floor of my home has all the drywall and insulation pulled out.  It's as if my home's inner walls have lost their pants - all you see are wood studs.  The kitchen is gone, the living, dining and master bed rooms empty of contents.  Out front lies the last rubbish pile from the gutting of the bottom floor.  I, along with the millions of other south-eastern Texans have survived Hurricane Harvey.

I've learned several things this last week, including one lesson in not complaining.  When I hear of the story of a friend of mine whose home was flooded in April of 2016 and he just barely finished the repairs on his home from that flood, only to be flooded yet again; and furthermore, he was just about to buy flood insurance when Harvey hit.  His 401K will take another hit like it did in 2016.  Or when I hear of another family who was trying to sell their home and live in their new one at the same time, and both homes get flooded and neither home has flood insurance.  Or when I hear the stories of family who got swept away in the flood or the toddler clinging to the neck of her dead mother who drowned.  In all these cases, I have no room to complain.  My family lived; our home is insured.  We saved 95% of our possessions.

But what if one of these stories I described above was my story?  Would I be justified in complaining?  Marcus would say, no.  He might even say that Zeus or the universe has prescribed this for us - that our fate is good for us. That is some exceptionally hard philosophy to swallow!

Furthermore, he says that when we do "fret", we are in a sense destroying ourselves.  What does this mean?  To me, it means that when we complain or fret or are anxious, we are failing to learn how to be more gritty and stronger and enduring.  The universe wants this to happen to you and by properly reacting to that fate, you are ennobling the whole.


During this last week, I've had to drive around a lot and I've had to do a lot of heavy lifting and hauling of debris.  Almost all during that time, I've been listening to Johnny Cash.  One song of his is a really interesting song about how a father named his son Sue and how the son got beat up and made fun of his whole life because of his name.  When he finally caught up with his dad, he fought him and was about to kill him when his dad explained why he named him Sue.  It was so that he would have a tough life and if he could survive that tough life, he could survive anything.  And at that point, his whole perspective changed.  It really is a neat little song that encapsulates the idea of amor fati even though the son kinda missed the whole point until he fought his dad.  But from the dad's perspective, he was like Zeus prescribing something for the benefit of his son - in this case, he gave his son a girl's name knowing that he'd have to be tough his whole life.

(see also Citadel p. 43, 139-140, 142, 162-163, 221)