“Concentrate every minute…on doing what’s in front of you with precision and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.” —Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays translation)
The philosophical journey continues, Imaginary Reader. Thanks for tagging along. Your illusory nature eases the act of writing, and I appreciate that.
I’ve lingered a bit in the land of the stoics, and I’m still there. I think I’ll stay for lunch. OK, I’m also peeking ahead toward Epicurus, but Marcus (I think we’re on a first-name basis at this point) reminds me to focus on the here and now—which is all you and I have, anyway—so that’s what I’ll do today.
Reading Marcus’s Meditations is a refreshing bath for the mind. Sort of Eckart Tolle without the coy ambiguity and enormous nostrils. Marcus didn’t intend to write a book; it’s apparently a compilation of little notes to himself when he was otherwise occupied with his day job—ruling the Roman Empire. I don’t know whether he intended to refer to these jottings over the course of his remaining life. Maybe he just understood that the act of writing is helpful in imprinting one’s own mind.
As I read his comments I often feel something like a faint tinge of embarrassment: I know that I’m reading some very intimate thoughts that he did not intend for a general audience. Or maybe he was in essence an ancient blogger, composing his informal little posts ahead of the technology. I don’t think he would mind my reading him, though—Marcus of all people would understand that my opinion is of no consequence to him, and I think that he would appreciate that a sympathetic fellow human being (a member of “the community,” in his terms) benefits from his private thoughts.
As much as Marcus and his fellow stoics strike a sympathetic chord in me, there are a few aspects that I can’t quite get my brain around. Among them is the admonition to eschew both pain and pleasure. On the pain side, I grasp the notion that we tend to create our own discomfort when we pass spurious judgment on what happens around us and thereby bring inside things that are better left outside.
However, I have to confess that I sorta enjoy pleasure. I savor the taste of a decent cup of coffee, as well as the sparkly effect of the caffeine. I like how the sunlight glistens on the smooth firm thighs of the young women who pass by cradling cardboard cups or cell phones. I relish the verdant park across the street and the occasional flutter of a yellow leaf dropping to the ground ahead of the onset of autumn. As much as I enjoy the company of my new-found stoic friends, I don’t want to forgo my simple pleasures, so long as I accept them for what they are.
That’s why I’m peeking ahead to Epicurus—I think he’s down with enjoyment, and the notion that simplicity may be the key to a profound version of pleasure.
Although Marcus professes to eschew pleasure, there are moments when he slips and intimates that he digs those good feelings that arise from living correctly (i.e. in accordance with his principles). I write that with affection because I like to think of Marcus as a guy who savored life even as he strove for continual self-improvement.
So…here’s a toast to the consolation of philosophy—which is, after all, the most practical and relevant field of study out there. We all need a reason to get up in the morning and do whatever the hell we do (regardless of whether we actually think about the options), and it’s reassuring to know that there are some old—really old—friends to show us the way.