Sunday, January 28, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B10:31-32

When you see Satyrion or Eutyches or Hymen, picture them in Socrates' circle; when you see Eutychion or Silvanus, picture Euphrates; when you see Tropaeophorus, picture Alciphron; when you see Severus, picture Crito or Xenophon; and when you look at yourself, picture one of the Caesars - for each, then, a parallel in the past. Then let this further thought strike you: Where are those men now? Nowhere, or wherever. In this way you will always look on human life as mere smoke and nothing, especially if you remind yourself also that what has once changed will be no more for the infinity of time. Why then this stress? Why not be content with an orderly passage through the brief span you have?
And what material situation, what role are you seeking to escape? What is all this other than an exercise for that reason which has looked at all of life with close and scientific inquiry? Stay on, then, until you have assimilated all this too, just as a strong stomach assimilates all food, or a bright fire turns all that you throw on it into flame and light.

Let no one have the chance to accuse you, with any truth, of not being sincere or a good man: make sure that anyone taking this view of you is a liar. This is wholly up to you - who is there to prevent you being good and sincere? You must just decide to live no longer if you won't have these qualities. And reason too abandons the man who won't.

In chapter 31 of Book 10, Marcus contemplates the great men of the past and asks, "Where are those men now?"  They are dead and forgotten.  It's all "smoke and nothing."  This is an important mental exercise for anyone.  I read history books for a few reasons.  History is fascinating, deep, complex, vast.  History repeats itself (Marcus alludes to this often).  And if history repeats itself, perhaps we can learn from it to avoid the mistakes of the past or to attempt again its successes.  But going back to the vast and complex nature of history.  If you really take the time to dive into a history book and think about the people who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago, you find a kinship with them and you really appreciate the breath-taking scale of time!  It's like looking down a corridor of two mirrors facing each others - it never ends!  And were it not for the history books, many of these people and the stories would be long forgotten.  Despite all the history books we have, even the famous and notable historical figures are forgotten.

So what?  Well, once you have this appreciation for the vast scale of history, put your life and your problems next to those stories.  At least for me, all of the sudden these "problems" I have turn very insignificant, very quickly.  And at that precise moment, there is a space for me to appreciate my life now - to "be content with an orderly passage through brief span" of time I have now.

Furthermore, Marcus asks, "why are you attempting to escape these problems you have now?"  Face them!  Keep being engaged until you have overcome.  The mental visual he often refers to is a fire consuming everything that is thrown at it.  That is what Stoicism is aiming for: to help you and me to be like the unquenchable fire - one than is gritty and resilient enough to take on anything.

In chapter 32 of Book 10, Marcus outlines the one way to ensure no one ever truthfully calls you a liar or insincere person: don't be one!  It's entirely in your control to be a good and sincere person.

(see also Citadel p. 48)

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