Friday, March 30, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 1 Chapter 25 - protect what is yours

According to Epictetus, Zeus sent us here to earth with the commandment: "Protect what belongs to you at all costs; don't desire what belongs to another."

What truly, wholly belongs to us?  It is our perception - our opinion - our attitude.

Indeed, we can prioritize everything in our life, but whatever we decide to focus on, we ought not to resent it (see verse 17).

Epictetus also correctly points out that what we try to protect and cherish becomes a means for us to be enslaved.  He says, "If I cherish my body, I make a slave of myself, if I cherish my property, I make a slave of myself" (see verse 23).  When we place importance on things that don't belong to us or are not in our control, we only torment ourselves.  "In general, remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves - that is, our opinions do" (see verse 28).

So what should we do?  We should practice "maintaining always the same even temper," for this is what Socrates did.

This is why the discipline of assent is so important.  We may experience a gut reaction to some event.  We ought to pause and in that pause, reflect on whether whatever it is that is trying to bother us.  Is it in our control?  Does it have sway or power over us?  Most likely it does not.  And instead, it is our perception that is holding us enslaved.  Therefore, we ought to check our assumptions and change our opinion as needed.  This is true freedom.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:36

Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. What matter if that life is five or fifty ears? The laws of the city apply equally to all. So what is there to fear in your dismissal from the city? This is no tyrant or corrupt judge who dismisses you, but the very same nature that brought you in. It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. 'But I have not played my five acts, only three.' 'True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.' Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.

This is my final entry on my commentary on Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.  It took me just under one full year to complete this small project (the first entry was Book 1 Chapters 1-4).  His ending chapter does not disappoint and is quite an appropriate topic on which to end: birth and death.

We had no control over our birth; and we will equally have no control over our death.

Therefore, have no worries over death.  Go about life, living in peace, content with your lot in life and focused on living a life according to Nature and virtue (temperance, courage, justice and wisdom).

Commentary on Meditations: B12:33-35

How does your directing mind employ itself? This is the whole issue. All else, of your own choice or not, is just corpse and smoke.

The clearest call to think nothing of death is the fact that even those who regard pleasure as a good and pain as an evil have nevertheless thought nothing of death.

For one whose only good is what comes in its own proper season, who is equally content with a greater or lesser opportunity to express true reason in his actions, to whom it makes no difference whether he looks on this world for a longer or a shorter time - for him even death has no terrors.

The great question: what do you do with your life and all that time?  This is, as Marcus says, "the whole issue."  Everything else is nothing (smoke and dead bodies).  I've been listening to a podcast with Ed Latimore.  In the interview, he talks about this interaction he had with his girlfriend.  He had an anti-education / intellectual attitude and seemed to deride his friend for her scholastic efforts.  She then asked him what he had to show for his life - what could he point to that he had accomplished.  He didn't have anything - he was nothing.  It was at that point he decided to master something.  For Stoics, the question is: how will you use your directing mind?  Wasting away chasing indifferents?  Or pursuing a life of virtue?

In chapter 34 of Book 12, Marcus makes the observation that even those people who chase nothing but pleasure don't even worry about death.  Then neither should Stoics.

In the following chapter (35) of Book 12, Marcus paints a picture of what death looks like to a Stoic.  For a Stoic, he or she is content when things come naturally.  A Stoic is content to express true reason in any opportunity (big or small).  For a Stoic, a long or short life makes no different.  Therefore, there is no fear of death.

Commentary on Meditations: B12:31-32

What more do you want? To live on? Or is it to continue sensation and impulse? To wax and then to wane? To make use of your voice, your mind? What in all this strikes you as good cause for regret? But if every one of these objects is contemptible, go on then to the final aim, which is to follow reason and to follow god. To value these other things, to fret at their loss which death will bring, militates against this aim.

What a tiny part of the boundless abyss of time has been allotted to each of us - and this is soon vanished in eternity; what a tiny part of the universal substance and the universal soul; how tiny in the whole earth the mere clod on which you creep. Reflecting on all this, think nothing important other than active pursuit where your own nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature brings.

What is it you want out of life?  To go from one pleasure to the next; from one pain avoidance act to the next; to give into one impulse after another?  Is that what life is really all about?  Or maybe there is something more meaningful?  Could you make use of your voice and mind?  Could you aim at something higher or better?  What is that "final aim"?  For the Stoics, the final aim was living according to Nature.  And the nature of humans is to use reason to live; to accept our fate (follow god) and to no fret or worry about things that are truly out of our control.

What truly matters in life?  To live it according to nature.  And if you need a reminder about how meaningless a lot of things are, consider how small, tiny and minute this moment is; this piece of land you are sitting on - how small it is.  Therefore, in this small fragment of time and space you occupy, accept it and make the most of it.

A quote by the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. reflects this sentiment of acceptance and opinion:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”



(see also Citadel p. 128-129, 173, 180, 184, 267)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:30

One light of the sun, even though its path is broken by walls, mountains, innumerable other obstacles. One common substance, even though it is broken up into innumerable forms of individual bodies. One animate soul, even though it is broken up into innumerable species with specific individualities. One intelligent soul, even though it appears divided.

Now in all the above the other parts - such as mere breath, or that material which is insensate - have no direct affinity to each other: yet even here a link is formed by a sort of unity and the gravitation of like to like. But the mind has this unique property: it reaches out to others of its own kind and joins with them, so the feeling of fellowship is not broken.

In this beautiful and eloquent passage, Marcus observes the light of the sun and how it is one light all over the world, despite being broken by objects.  He applies this idea to one Directing Mind - one animate, intelligent soul, that even though it appears divided by the millions and billions of people, is still unified.

He then observes the same concept with the human body - how the breath, the arms, the legs, etc, all function as one.  And the one thing in common is the mind.  And of all the human parts, only the mind will reach out to other minds and it creates this link with other people.  Such is our social nature and as such, we should live according to nature.

(see also Citadel p. 113, 260)

Friday, March 2, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:27-29

Continually review in your mind those whom a particular anger took to extremes, those who reached the greatest heights of glory or disaster or enmity or any other sort of fortune. Then stop and think: where is it all now? Smoke and ashes, a story told or even a story forgotten. At the same time this whole class of examples should occur to you: Fabius Catullinus in his country house, Lusius Lupus in his town gardens, Stertinius at Baiae, Tiberius in Capri, Velius Rufus - and generally any obsession combined with self-conceit. Think how worthless all this striving is: how much wiser to use the material given you to make yourself in all simplicity just, self-controlled, obedient to the gods. The pride that prides itself on freedom from pride is the hardest of all to bear.

To those who ask, 'Where then have you seen the gods? What conviction of their existence leads you to this worship of them?', I reply first that they are in fact visible to our eyes. Secondly, and notwithstanding, that I have not seen my own soul either, and yet I honour it. So it is with the gods too: from my every experience of their power time after time I am certain that they exist, and I revere them.

The salvation of life lies in seeing each object in its essence and its entirety, discerning both the material and the causal: in applying one's whole soul to doing right and speaking the truth. There remains only the enjoyment of living a linked succession of good deeds, with not the slightest gap between them.

Studying history, in my opinion, does more to help you realize how futile and worthless a large swath of life is.  People pursuing power, riches, fame, immortality ... utterly useless and pointless.  Where are the most powerful, the most famous, the most beautiful, the strongest?  Where are they now?  Dead.  Dust.  Forgotten.

Instead, how much wiser to spend your time and efforts to simply focus on justice, self-discipline and loving your lot in life?  This leads to contentment and peace of mind.

Marcus believed in the gods.  It helped him love his lot in life.

In chapter 29, Marcus summarizes what life is about.

1. seeing things as they really are (and not applying judgement to them).

2. ensuring all your actions and words are just; and going from one good deed and word to another.

(see also Citadel p. 41, 43, 48, 186, 239, 273)

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Commentary on Meditations: B12:26

When you fret at any circumstance, you have forgotten a number of things. You have forgotten that all comes about in accordance with the nature of the Whole; that any wrong done lies with the other; further, that everything which happens was always so in the past, will be the same again in the future, and is happening now across the world; that a human being has close kinship with the whole human race - not a bond of blood or seed, but a community of mind. And you have forgotten this too, that every man's mind is god and has flowed from that source; that nothing is our own property, but even our child, our body, our very soul have come from that source; that all is as thinking makes it so; that each of us lives only the present moment, and the present moment is all we lose.

Marcus offers very sound advice when we feel our anxiety starting to rise.  At the time of this writing, this passage was particularly useful.  I arrived at work on Monday, expecting a quiet week; a week where I'd be able to work on my back log.  Instead, there were numerous issues and popped up and multiple fires to fight.  I felt the stress and anxiety creep in.  Then I came across this passage and recognized I was 'fretting.'  I remembered that whatever happens, including all these issues, was brought about in accordance with the nature of the Whole.  There was no benefit in getting all riled up and stressed out.  All that happened this week, indeed, has happened before and will happen again.  This point was driven home to me, because nine years ago, I was in a very similar situation.  Back then, I did not have the Stoic framework.  But this week I did and I was much more accepting of the situation than I was nine years ago.

If I go back twenty years ago, I recall being stressed out and homesick while I was living in a foreign country.  At that time, a good person and dear friend gave me some excellent advice.  I was focused on myself and my problem.  But he advised me that all through the country and around the world, there were other people in a similar situation as I was in.  And that if I remembered that every morning, I would not feel so lonely and feel a kinship with everyone else living through similar circumstances.

All of us humans are in this together.  We all come from god's mind, therefore every human's mind is a slice of the divine.

Lastly, we have control over our opinion and attitude.  And we get to choose what our attitude will be.  Therefore, be present and live in this very moment - be positive.

(see also Citadel p. 38-43, 113, 127, 132)