Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Great Books

Class IV: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Things turned a bit more contentious today -- moreso, at least, than one would expect when discussing the gentle exhortations (to himself, no less) of the far-off Roman ruler and Stoic philosopher (Marcus died in 180 C.E., at the age of 59).

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, of the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life (lex devina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how that person behaved

Marcus Aurelius
We launched right in with a decidedly 21st-century question about Marcus's Meditations: Did Marcus's station in life (he was a child of privilege and born to be an emperor) somehow denigrate his spiritual struggle?  Did the fact that he had the time and energy to think about such lofty things as how to apply a Stoic philosophy to his life simply represent his luck in having so much wealth and power, and therefore make his actual ideas less important?  No homeless person, prostitute, day laborer or slave would have had the time to think in such a manner, after all.

In a more general sense, does having privilege by itself make our philosophical and spiritual struggle less relevant?  

Needless to say, I was disturbed by this line of thinking.  People have privilege.  It's what they do with this good fortune that matters.  Poverty or affliction does not make one a better person simply for having these attributes; nor does having chances and options make one "bad."  It is always how one reacts to their situation.  Of course, as it was pointed out: this is easy for me to say, as I am a child of privilege.

We moved on to note that the idea of a ruler who looked to philosophy for grounding was in itself hopeful.  Nowadays, politicians look to lobbyists or, at best, some narrow version of religion for their lode star.  Gone are the days when leaders tried to understand their role within a much larger, and deeper spiritual system.  We saw echoes of the work that Lao Tzu attempted to do, as he devoted his life (generally unsuccessfully) to trying to influence temporal leaders with spiritual values.  Marcus Aurelius, it seemed, tried to do this to himself.  Pretty impressive!

Stoicism, however, still continued to rankle.  While one of us noted that it seemed to mean "accept fate with a smile," another retorted: "sure, if fate has been good to you!"  It's easy enough to accept your lot when you are the emperor.  But if you are struggling to put bread on the table?  Or homeless?  Or in chronic pain?

Wish for everything to be exactly as it is,
and your life will be serene
Another point of contention (and certainly for an activist): how can one both live in the moment (the highest form of "consciousness"), and strive for social good or personal growth at the same time?  Although much of Stoicism seems to echo Taoism (in terms of acceptance and non-action), social action demands engagement.

Marcus argued: "Everything is borne out of change -- and no change should be viewed as better or worse," just different.  Indeed, Marcus Aurelius keeps life's biggest change in the forefront of his thought, spending an inordinate amount of time talking and thinking about death: the great equalizer.  By keeping death in the forefront of the mind, it helps to keep everything else is perspective.  But how exactly does it all fit together?

We brought Taoism to bear on our understanding of Stoicism.  These ideals of which Marcus Aurelius speaks are not goals -- no one can truly live a mystical existence (no matter how much they assure they are doing so in print).  These are goals, guideposts, things that one should keep in mind, which should influence day-to-day action in the grocery store checkout line, in the subway, in speaking with friends, in passing a homeless person.  And in that vein (one of us assured), they might comfort as securely as Linus's tattered blanket -- soft and always at our side.

Mystical ideals, after all, are not immune from the bombardment of a life lived in society.  And Marcus Aurelius himself noted the social aspect at the center of our existence by commenting that any action not directed toward a social end (betterment) was not in keeping with nature's harmony.  So these ideas are meant to influence action, and relationships.  A good person acts in harmony with nature.  How is she to know if her actions are in harmony?  By their social import, it would appear.  As activists, we were now back on familiar ground.

Little Girl Mystic
So within this construct, how to communicate with people?  Never lie.  This is a start.  Not even those little white lies we tell so as not to hurt someone ("you look great in that!"  "Of course, I'm not having an affair!?"  "I only had two at the bar" etc.).  So what should we say?  How about: nothing.  Silence is an underrated manner of communicating.

Action grows from conflict, from hurdles in our path.  Without the impetus of conflict, we might not act at all.  And action is necessary, according to Marcus Aurelius, though like the Bhagavad Gita, we must divorce ourselves from the fruits of action.  We must also undertake our sacred obligation (much like Arjuna on the field of battle).

Still: what kind of resonance can this sort of mystical thought have in a world of bleating and tweeting, crooning, Candy Crush, yearning, Vine, Youtube stars and vapid, content-less fame and fortune?  The question kept returning, as did answers: It can only have meaning on the personal level, in the realm of interpersonal relationships.  We can hardly hope that one of our contemporary leaders will, like Marcus Aurelius, devote herself in secret to timeless ideals.  What we see in the latest trove of "wikileaks" emails is a completely different relationship with power politics: Machiavellian, not Marcus-like.

We continued in the realm of the personal.  How should these mystical ideas -- those of equanimity, acceptance, perspective, social gentleness -- affect us in our day-to-day lives?  And the idea of privilege popped up again: are we simply fortunate to even be able to think about such things?

I noted that "guilt" never plays a role in mystical thought.  "Guilt" is for religion, for systems which assure they know "right" from "wrong."  Mysticism is about faith, silence, listening, acceptance, tenderness and yielding.  "Guilt," in the sense that we feel compelled to act in a certain manner, has no place in this world.  One acts out of intuition, harmony and faith.  And if one can't figure out, one listens instead of speaking.

Back to privilege: does the freedom that comes from economic and social privilege, the security to think about mystical things, somehow negate the worth of such pursuits?  Is the only honorable course to find barely enough sustenance and a spare roof over one's head, and after that, all other pursuits are irrelevant, and perhaps even unsavory?

I pointed out that although many mystical paths advocate an ascetic lifestyle, not all do -- some have strong sensual components woven into them (Sufism and Hasidism come to mind).  These sensual pleasures are to be taken as metaphor -- the sighs between lovers are, as Bahā ud-Dīn Walad (Rumi's father) noted, simply messages from God to God.  I also noted that although an ascetic lifestyle is often advocated for, in no system is mystical thought considered privy only to the monks and anchorites.  It is, and should be, central to any person's thought (as it was to Marcus Aurelius), be they emperor, bus driver or even artist (!).

We finished with a discussion of consciousness.  What does it mean to be "conscious?"  How can we achieve it?  One of us proposed that they feel most "conscious" when they are lost in the moment.  This echoed Marcus's assertion that the moment is the most beautiful thing we have.  "But that means that consciousness -- the act of watching ourselves -- plays no role in being conscious?"  The proponent of the idea shrugged and smiled.  

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