Friday, November 29, 2013

Meditations IV, 3

I've been reading and rereading a verse from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations lately. I might have written about it sooner except for two points: one, I really wanted to find a place I could copy-paste from since it's looong and I didn't feel like typing it, and two, some events and conversations of the past few weeks have really gotten me thinking about it again.

I never did find a place to copy-paste from since although there are plenty of versions on the internet, I like none as much as the translation in my copy. The language is sparser and more direct in the way that I think MA would have intended it. Also, I always make my students copy something I really want them to internalize, rather than photocopy it and give them handouts. The act of writing is another path towards memory. Anyway, Meditations IV, 3:

Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains- a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he only need contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind- the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself. Make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals; recurrence to them will then suffice to remove all vexation, and send you back without fretting to the duties to which you must return.
 After all, what is it that frets you? The vices of humanity? Remember the doctrine that all rational beings are created for one another; that toleration is a part of justice; and that men are not intentional evildoers. Think of the myriad enmities, suspicions, animosities, and conflicts that are now vanished with the dust and ashes of the men who knew them; and fret no more.
Or is it your allotted portion in the universe that chafes you? Recall once again the dilemma, 'if not a wise providence, then a mere jumble of atoms,' and consider the profusion of evidence that this world is as it were a city. Do the ills of the body afflict you? Reflect that the mind has but to detach itself and apprehend its own powers, to be no longer involved with the movements of the breath, whether they be smooth or rough. In short, recollect all that you have learnt and accepted regarding pain and pleasure.
Or does the bubble reputation distract you? Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and discerning the judgements of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame. For the entire earth is but a point, and the place of our habitation but a minute corner of it; and how many therein who will praise you, and what sort of men are they?
Remember then to withdraw into the little field of self. Above all, never struggle or strain; but be master of yourself, and view life as a man, as a human being, as a citizen and as a mortal. Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can only arise from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and you will be no more. Think of the countless changes in which you yourself have had a part. The whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it.

I don't intend to write on the entire verse, though I certainly could find lots to say about all of it, but I decided to include it all rather than edit it to my purpose, as others might find value in parts I don't intend to touch on. However, the parts to wish to examine I will do in order. 

Most of the beauty of the Meditations is in Aurelius' ability to condense a lifetime's wisdom into a single sentence. It is rarer that I find myself returning to the more actively contemplative passages, where one can envision him in his tent on campaign, strained with the duties of rule and war, sorting his thoughts only as pen strikes paper. This passage, however, contains so much of value, on such a wide variety of topics, while yet maintaining a central theme, that it has managed to draw me back again and again.

Further, there is nothing truly profound in this passage; nothing he doesn't say elsewhere in the Meditations, or that a thinking person couldn't formulate on their own, if they paused for a moment. But that's the beauty of Stoicism. It doesn't seek profundity. Just earnest truth.

But on to the passage. When I think about this passage, it is the first paragraph that I am most often reflecting on, as it is this that has the most personal meaning for me on a daily basis. This is something I have striven for my whole (thinking) life. When I was young, I envisioned for myself a cabin in the woods where I could escape from the hustle of the world and finally realize the peace of being alone with my own thoughts without the demands for time and attention that others make. Many have felt this pull, from before Isaiah through Thoreau and beyond. Many think, "If only I could be in this time, or this place, or this circumstance, I would find peace."

Fortunately, they are all, as I was, wrong. Peace that requires time, place or circumstance is merely an illusion. If you can't carry peace with you, of what use is it? If you can't find that single, quiet spot in your own (metaphorical) soul, then where will it be when you genuinely need it? If you need to live in a certain place, surrounded by certain people or circumstances, have you achieved anything at all? If you can't find peace in a room full of screaming children, or a department store during the holidays, or a packed dance club, or a social event where every single person present screams to be the center of attention, or, you know, something that really demands your attention, like a war zone, what good is it?

(Or if you need to be listening to this while writing, and not Shrek 3. Amazing.)

I'm not a terribly patient person. I fail at this regularly. To make up for that, I try to practice this in moments when finding that quiet center seems the least likely, such as circumstances like those above. I'll deliberately seek them out, from time to time, because I find it to be good practice. And because, as with anything else, the greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction. When one can remove oneself completely from a packed dance club, with the untz-untz-untz vibrating through your chest, surrounded by a sea of writhing, barely-clad bodies desperately seeking not to have to be alone with themselves for a few fleeting moments, it affords a truly unique experience, one that simply can't be described here, or anywhere. (Not that there isn't value in being part of that mass, from time to time. I just find the experience at the other end of the spectrum infinitely more valuable. To me, anyway.)

I could go on, but I'm merely reiterating what Aurelius says, just less eloquently. The second paragraph touches on ideas I've written about numerous times before, and don't feel the need to rehash. The third however, ties in very neatly to the first, and I'd like to spend a moment there.

Life is a constant series of demands on our attention. For many people this is, at least on the surface, a blessing, as this affords distraction from the looming fact of our mortality (which Aurelius takes on directly later in the passage), a distraction from the immediate need to find meaning in our thoughts, words and actions; in short a distraction from being alone with ourselves. Yet, as persistent as are the demands of duty, accident and other people, they are nothing next to the demands of our own bodies.

There are few things harder to get away from than pain and pleasure (while few rarely seek to escape the later as it occurs, the occasional effort is not lacking in merit.) Illness and injury often manage to creep into our most serene thoughts, even with deliberate effort to keep them out. And thus, I've found practice in this arena of equal value to that of the social or circumstantial. Seeking pain (or pleasure), not in a masochistic (or hedonistic) sense, but as a measure to test one's will against, to strengthen one's ability to remove oneself from any and all circumstances, can be very instructive. 

Up until this point, I've tried to comment on Aurelius in a purely one-dimensional way, using the terms "remove oneself" as if what he was speaking of was akin to being able to achieve deep mediation at the drop of a hat. However, I don't think that is truly what he meant. I think, rather, that what he is defining is an ability to be fully present in a moment, a moment of pain, pleasure or distraction, and yet simultaneously be at peace within it. I've avoided speaking of both sides of this coin for clarity's sake. But at this point, I need to be clearer. Thus, I could elaborate further, or I could simply refer you to Tyler Durden:






Aurelius and Durden are asking the same thing of their audiences; know, don't fear, but know that someday you are going to die. (Aside from Durden's stoner-theologizing here, the two are making many of the same points.) Pain is the body's alarm of incremental death. When your legs burn after miles of running, or your stomach growls after hours empty, or your flesh screams as it melts away, all are warnings, "If this continues, buddy... eh, kaput." Facing pain, truly facing it, not going to your cave, is one of the closest approximations we have to facing death.

Aurelius, though, touches on "the swift onset of oblivion," not in the context of pain, but in much the same context he typically does, that of fame, praise and admiration. As emperor of the longest-enduring empire of such immense size, ruler of nearly his entire known world, and (unknowingly) a writer whose words would be read at least two millenia later, he had more reason to rest his satisfaction on fame and legacy than nearly all others, before and since. And yet he recognizes its utter and complete irrelevance. 

As a person whose ego, "knows no limits," (edit: "unrivaled" he says he said) as my brother recently and accurately said, this has been something I, personally, have had to work hard to come to terms with. I still think, "Well, no, I don't need to be famous, I just want to be that guy that writes that book that makes people stop reading Ulysses." Ambition is a great motivator. Much good has been accomplished due to ambition, as has much ill. What I believe Aurelius would have us do is what is right and what is honest, regardless of who's watching. All the rest, let come what will.

I've pulled merely a draught from that passage, but I hardly needed to pull any at all, since Aurelius says what he intends so clearly. So I'll leave it to you. Besides, I've been hammered for about nine paragraphs, and I've got some LoL to get to.