Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius contain wonderful aphorisms that have been cherished for generations. The purpose of the review is to enable to reader to better understand, and profit from, a reading the Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of the known world at the time but he was also known to be a philosopher even though the people of Rome knew nothing of his writings. The Meditations were not intended for publication and were given no order or title by Marcus Aurelius himself. We shall come to understand why.

Philosophy in antiquity was not topic but a way of life: a lived practice of virtues. Alongside this way of life a philosopher engaged in philosophical discourse which justified and motivated that choice of life. But, the discourse was philosophical only if it supported a personal transformation. The personal transformation is what philosophy was about. A philosopher was identified by his or her choices in life and not by what they wrote, or by the system of thought they developed.  Thus, Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher because of the way he lived: to become better.
Although not all philosophers valued philosophical discourse, for example, the Cynics, the Stoics, and other schools, thought that philosophical discourse, that was meant to have a transformational function, was an integral part of the philosophical life. They emphasised that philosophical discourse was not enough, on its own. That it was possible to develop an 'empty discourse' unrelated to a philosophical life (the peddlers of empty discourse were severely criticized by philosophers, and others). So, when a philosopher expounded on doctrine (what we today would interpret as pure theory) it was always, in its mode of expression and its end, practice. The philosopher aims to form rather than inform. This is the key to understanding the Meditations.

The "Mediations" of Marcus Aurelius were an authentic philosophical discourse: they were written by himself, about himself, and to himself, in order to establish within himself an inner discourse and a set of dispositions which would allow him to practice philosophy. He had no thought of systematic exposition of theory. The function of his writing was to 'dye his soul', or strengthen his soul for action. It is this feature of his writing that distinguishes his Meditations from modern literary genres. What were later called his "Meditations" were, in fact, spiritual exercises practiced according to Stoic traditions and according to specific methods. The surface form of this writing was given to him by this Stoic tradition and the literary conventions of his day and we must not read into the text too much about him or his psychological states (e.g we must not read into the text that Marcus Aurelius was lonely, pessimistic, despondent, doped, and such like). In reading him, we must constantly bear in mind that his writings are not an exposition of doctrine, a stream of consciousness, or his recollections. His writings were exercises. Thus, when he says of fancy food "This is the corpse of a fish", or of a fine wine "This is just some grape juice", he is not expressing distain. These statements have a definite function: they are to situate fancy food and fine wine within the perspective of universal nature and strip them of social mystique (that is strip them of their aura of heightened value). So, there is nothing autobiographical about the statements. The autobiographical aspects of his work, although real, are very subtle.

So, what are spiritual exercises? Pierre Hadot defines them "as voluntary, personal practices meant to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self". He says elsewhere that philosophical discourse "could be presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within." Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are just such a discourse: they are an inner discourse where Reason strives to describe the philosophical way of life to his Soul (his true self, the breath that holds his body together as a living entity). Reason sketches out the model that Marcus must have constantly in view: the good person. The good person will act justly in the service of others, accept serenely those events which do not depend upon his or her will, and see the objective truth (strip things of their mystique). This vision represents a world view as an indivisible inner disposition. It was embodied in three rules of life by Epictetus. I will express his rules as follows:

Epictetus, Ep.ic.TEE.tus
Epictetus, Ep.ic.TEE.tus
1 Accept the world as it is,

2 Conduct yourself justly,

3 Give assent only to those things that are objective

When we talk about philosophy (or teach it), rather than live it, these rules entail the contemplation of three topics: physics, ethics, and logic. Taking about philosophy and breaking it down into these three themes is a pedagogic necessity only. Other break downs of doctrine were recommended and used too but Marcus Aurelius followed Epictetus.

By physics, the Stoics meant something like the natural world but this included what we would call theology. They thought of the world as continuous and held together by a divine rational spirit. Marcus talks about God and Gods but this is a legacy way of speaking. He believed in a divine rational spirit that generated and permeated everything. Uniquely though, Human beings are given a share of the divine rationality as their own. They remain part of the whole and to live well is to live in harmony with that whole.

Epictetus said "You are a human being, and a human being is a mortal animal that has the power of using appearances rationally. And what I mean by 'rationally' is complete conformity to Nature. The unique thing about you is the rational faculty. Adorn it and beautify it."

The essence of a philosopher is the disposition towards goodness, the love of wisdom. This indivisible inner disposition runs the risk of fading or weakening unless constantly dyed or strengthened. To dye the soul for action (to strengthen the soul) we must repeatedly render images to ourselves that are vivid and forever renewed. These images, and the careful crafting of them in literary writing, are intended to be psychologically effective and instil the principles at the foundation of the model. A shopping list of truths would NOT do the job. We must train. The philosopher must repeatedly engage in spiritual exercises that are both imaginative and discursive. In this way, the philosopher can establish an inner discourse and the profound dispositions which would enable him or her to practice concretely the three rules of life set out by Epictetus.

The themes that we find in the structure of the Meditations just are those exercise themes laid down by Epictetus. Since judgement, desire, and inclination depend upon us we can discipline them. Each maxim is carefully crafted to develop one, two, or all three topics. Each maxim is an exercise of assimilation of one or more of the three disciplines of life. The Emperor wrote about himself for himself to train himself, not to hold forth on theory, nor to 'express himself'. He was training for wisdom.

At the heart of this enterprise is the thought that "Everything is a matter of judgment" whether it is a about physics, ethics, or logic. In each case, it is always a matter of examining and criticizing the value-judgments which one brings to bear. For the Stoics, Logic (reason) penetrates the whole of conduct. So, it is perhaps helpful to bring out this thought because it is at work throughout the "Meditations". To make this notion of judgment and value-judgment clearer we need a metaphor. I will use one suggested by Chrysippus who said "Just as when your push a cylinder you have caused it to begin its movement, but you have not given it the property of rolling, so likewise an appearance will no doubt mark and imprint its form up the soul; and yet our assent will still remain free within our power". This metaphor is useful, let us develop it. I find it helpful to think of two shapes, in this case, cylinders. If one, or the other, of the objects were cones, say, then it would roll very differently but the analogy would still work.

Let us image two cylinders. The first of these we will take as the cylinder of perception (taken in its widest sense). The second, let us say, is the cylinder of judgment. The first is pushed and rolls and in its turn pushes the second and it rolls (this implies that human beings apprehend reality in terms of meanings). Now, just as the first cylinder does not get its properties from the push, nor does the second. On a larger view of this situation, the push itself does not cause the roll. The "internal causes" of the cylinder, its shape, are necessary for it to roll in the characteristic way it does. On this metaphor, we can see that the 'second' part of our soul the judging part, has established inner dispositions (the properties) that lead to assenting or declining judgements. These dispositions can be created by convention, prejudice, ignorance, or, importantly, the imposition of reason.

The 'second cylinder' is our character and because of it we are responsible for the actions that result from it. The helmsman of the soul, the superior, guiding, part of the soul (the intellect or divine part) is free to make judgments. It alone can give or refuse assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object of perception amounts to. The superior part of the soul is completely free.  It can, in principle, and given time, change the dispositions of the soul. We can give shape to our character. Thus, we are responsible for our character whether given to us by habit, society, or the imposition of reason.

As the cylinder analogy is intended to show, it would be wrong to regard fate as being external to agents. We should view fate as operating through agents. We are partners with the all prevading reason, working within it to bring about the history of the world as it is meant to be brought about.
The essential and unique part of a person just is this capacity for value-judgment: our rationality. Reason can guide the soul to correct action. Thus, the correct reading of the Meditations is as Marcus Aurelius' Reason exhorting or guiding his Soul on a pattern laid down by Epictetus: "What troubles people are not things, but their value-judgements about things",

  • "Get rid of the value-judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself." (viii.40)
  • "Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return." (iv.23) 
  • "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!" (xii.13) 

All of these are judgments about value-judgment. More generally they say things cannot touch us because they cannot touch the guiding principles within us. We are free to lovingly accept what the world has to offer and treat people with a heart free of bitterness.

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My interpretation of the Meditations as spiritual exercises comes from Pierre Hadot. Others mention them but rarely see the pervasive depth and significance of this insight and what it means for our reading of the Meditations. See Hadot's 'Philosophy as a way of life'.

Remember that the books of the Meditations were not ordered that way by Marcus Aurelius himself. For the most interesting read, I would recommend reading the meditations starting at book III, then book VII, read the rest in any order but leave Book 1 to last (it was actually written last). Book 1 expresses gratitude for those people who have made him into who he is. It makes for more interesting reading when you have been exposed to his other books first.

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