Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Meditations": How to Be a Stoic

In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius takes a Stoic stance in his philosophy. Because I've already gone through the basics of Stoicism in the previous entry, I won't do so again. The Meditations is basically Marcus Aurelius' notebook, offering himself philosophical guidance and things to ponder, all from a Stoic perspective. Consequently, the primary audience for the Meditations is Marcus Aurelius himself, not the average reader. While most of the entries are general, some are specific to him - or at least someone placed in authority.

There's a character in one of my favourite books, Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, named the Fox. The Fox is a Greek slave serving in the house of the King of Glome as a teacher of the king's daughters, Orual, Redival, and Psyche. Lewis wrote the Fox as a Stoic, so reading the Meditations was a bit like having the Fox teaching me and, because the Fox is one of my favourite book characters, I found this rather enjoyable. The only problem was that the Meditations was clearly not intended to be read the way I read it. Because I'm on a schedule, I read it in fairly large chunks at a time, but the Meditations were meant to be slowly pondered - or, well, meditated - on at leisure. This made the Meditations less enjoyable and beneficial as they could be.

The Meditations was one of the more practical books in the Great Books and there were many ideas that I took away from it. Specifically, I really liked the idea that nothing external can hurt you. External things can destroy your body, fine, but they don't have the power to make you miserable or wicked - only you have the power to do that. We always have the choice of how we're going to react to the situations we're placed in (and from a Stoic point of view, all situations are ordained by the logos). You will always have the power to have good intentions, good character, and do good actions and nothing can take that from you. The idea of accepting what happens to you as inevitable also really helped me. As I've alluded to in the past, I've recently gone through a turn of events that have really taken a toll on me, but reading Marcus Aurelius has been like therapy, moreso than Lucretius.

Some other ideas in the Mediataions were finding your place in the world and accepting it (also a very helpful thing for me right now), the world is a city, humanity is meant to be in harmony with each other, bad people cannot help doing bad things and shouldn't be hated for it, and the small role you have in the universe. Marcus Aurelius heavily stressed the smallness of an individual in light of the vastness of time and space (and you thought that was a modern idea). Once this idea of insignificance is accepted, you can go to live a virtuous life. Where Lucretius (and, by extension, Epicurus) thought of pleasure as the highest goal of human existence, Marcus Aurelius (and, by extension, Zeno) thought of virtue as the highest goal of human existence. Although virtue seems to have been included in Epicurus' definition of "pleasure", Marcus Aurelius thought that pleasure should be sacrificed if it is in conflict with virtue. 

For an outsider the writings of Marcus Aurelius create an odd mixture of comfort and depression. However, for a committed Stoic, I'm sure the depressing entries in Marcus Aurelius' writings would grow less and less depressing, and eventually the writings in their entirety would be a source of comfort.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Epicureanism vs. Stoicism

Before reading Meditations, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a comparison between Epicureanism (the philosophy Lucretius explains in On the Nature of Things) and Stoicism (the philosophy attributed to Marcus Aurelius). Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus and Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium.

The best place to start is how these two philosophies view the divine. Epicureanism doesn't deny the existence of gods, but states that they are totally separate and unconcerned with the world. Therefore, far from following a divine plan, the universe is the product of the random collision of atoms.

Stoicism, however, teaches that the universe is governed by the Logos. The Logos guides the universe rationally and seems to be akin to the monotheistic conception of God, although the Logos seems to be pantheistically linked to the world while God is transcendant in relation to the world. Other words for the Logos are Nature or Providence.

Epicureans imagine the universe as being both infinite and eternal and composed of minute particles called atoms that can be neither created nor destroyed. In the Stoic universe everything (rocks, trees, people etc.) has a pneuma i.e. a "vital spirit". The pneuma is what makes a person a person (or rock, tree etc.) rather than just a pile of flesh and bones. When something is destroyed the pneuma gets absorbed back into the Logos. As well, the universe is destroyed in fire periodically, everything in the universe gives up its pneuma, and the universe is reborn.

Both Stoicism and Epicureanism envision events as being part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. This would seemingly interfere with free will, but both philosophies have ways of accomodating free will. In Epicureanism a "swerve" is a chance movement of atoms unconnected to the chain of cause and effect. Stoicism accomodates free will by stating that, although free will exists, the choices made by free will were anticipated by the Logos.

Epicureans believe that delusion (especially religious delusion) must be overcome for a full a full enjoyment of life. Epicureans believe that pleasure is the highest end of human existence. Stoics believe in the inherent harmony and rationality of the universe. Stoics train themselves to calmly accept whatever Nature throws at them, because everything is orchastrated to a good and harmonious end. Hence the modern word "stoic": "One who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain".

Epicureans deny that the soul is separate from the body and that the soul dies with the body. Stoics think that the soul (i.e. the pneuma) is indeed separate from the body and re-absorbs back into the Logos when the body dies. Neither philosophies hold to a conscious afterlife. It could be argued that the soul returning to the Logos is a kind of afterlife, but it seems to be more like Nirvana than Paradise.

Interestingly, both philosophies place emphasis on overcoming the fear of death, but for very different reasons. Epicureans train themselves not to fear death, because with death comes the cessation of existence and, therefore, the cessation of desires. The Stoics on the other hand accept death because it is the will of the Logos. Stoics have confidence in the rationality of the universe, as guided by the Logos, and therefore have confidence in the rationality of their own deaths.

I've found learning about and comparing Epicureanism and Stoicism very interesting. I have a lot of respect for both philosophies, but I have a couple issues with them (there are stumbling blocks in every philosophy). For Stoicism, the obvious objection is the apparent cruelty and randomness of the "rational universe". For Epicureanism, the problems of free will and reason come up. If everything is in an unbroken chian of cause and effect, this would seem to interfere with free will. Lucretius tries to accomodate free will by introducing the swerve, as described above. Without the swerve Epicureanism is so elegant and "clean", but I don't see how the swerve is any less "messy" than miracles. What causes swerves? A deeper level of cause and effect? But that would still interfere with free will. Also reason seems a bit threatened to me by Epicureanism. If everthing is determined by chance, as Lucretius and Epicurus believed, that also means that human reason is a product of chance. If that's the case than human reason is as arbitrary as the colour of our eyes and I don't see why I should trust a rationality that is a product of the random collision of atoms. Of the two, I find Stoicism the most satisfying i.e. the least problematic (I'm learning more and more that choosing a philosohy is choosing whichever is the least problematic).

Stoic definition: