The Stoic Ideal
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as well as works by Cicero which extol stoic virtues, put me in a state of awe and shame. I’m awed by the loftiness of their ideal character: purposefulness of life, clarity of vision, purity in dedication, fortitude, temperance, magnanimity, freedom and equanimity; I’m ashamed as if looking in a mirror and recognizing my own character contemptible in contrast.
The Stoic Tenets
As I understand it, the Stoic tenets are centered on two principles: Firstly, God is the source from whom all things issue, by whom all things are governed and renewed, and to whom all things return. Secondly, Divine Reason permeates all rational being, and it is shared by gods and men. Men are therefore properly called sons of God.
Man should live according to his nature as a rational being, and accept all that happen in accord with nature, because nothing that naturally occurs is evil. For instance, death, like birth, is part of the course of nature, and should be accepted with equanimity; We are to treat our fellow men with kindness for they are our kinsmen by nature, and all are created for the purpose of the common good, because the universe is the universal commonwealth of gods and men.
Thus must you according to truth and nature, throughly consider how man’s life is but for a very moment of time, and so depart meek and contented: even as if a ripe olive falling should praise the ground that bare her, and give thanks to the tree that begat her.
What do you desire? To live long. What? To enjoy the operations of a sensitive soul; or of the appetitive faculty? or would you grow, and then decrease again? Would you long be able to talk, to think and reason with yourself? Which of all these seems unto you a worthy object of your desire? Now if of all these you do find that they be but little worth in themselves, proceed on unto the last, which is, in all things to follow God and reason. But for a man to grieve that by death he shall be deprived of any of these things, is both against God and reason.
Beauty and Fame
And so must you reason with yourself, both in matter of fame, and in matter of death. For as for the body itself, (the subject of death) would you know the vileness of it? Turn it about that you may behold it the worst sides upwards as well, as in its more ordinary pleasant shape; how does it look, when it is old and withered? when sick and pained? when in the act of lust, and fornication? And as for fame. This life is short. Both he that praises, and he that is praised; he that remembers, and he that is remembered, will soon be dust and ashes. Besides, it is but in one corner of this part of the world that you are praised; and yet in this corner, you have not the joint praises of all men; no nor scarce of any one constantly. And yet the whole earth itself, what is it but as one point, in regard of the whole world?
All Bear Fruits
Man, God, the world, every one in their kind, bear some fruits. All things have their proper time to bear. Though by custom, the word itself is in a manner become proper unto the vine, and the like, yet is it so nevertheless, as we have said. As for reason, that beareth both common fruit for the use of others; and peculiar, which itself doth enjoy. Reason is of a diffusive nature, what itself is in itself, it begets in others, and so doth multiply.
The natural properties, and privileges of a reasonable soul are: That she seeth herself; that she can order, and compose herself: that she makes herself as she will herself: that she reaps her own fruits whatsoever, whereas plants, trees, unreasonable creatures, what fruit soever (be it either fruit properly, or analogically only) they bear, they bear them unto others, and not to themselves.
How happy is man in this his power that hath been granted unto him: that he needs not do anything but what God shall approve, and that he may embrace contentedly, whatsoever God doth send unto him?
Ten Ways of Dealing with Evil
As for other men’s either foolishness or wickedness, that it may not trouble and grieve thee;
First, what reference have I unto these? and that we are all born for one another’s good: then more particularly after another consideration; as a ram is first in a flock of sheep, and a bull in a herd of cattle, so am I born to rule over them. Begin yet higher, even from this: if atoms be not the beginning of all things, than which to believe nothing can be more absurd, then must we needs grant that there is a nature, that doth govern the universe. If such a nature, then are all worse things made for the better’s sake; and all better for one another’s sake.
Secondly, what manner of men they be, at board, and upon their beds, and so forth. But above all things, how they are forced by their opinions that they hold, to do what they do; and even those things that they do, with what pride and self-conceit they do them.
Thirdly, that if they do these things rightly, thou hast no reason to be grieved. But if not rightly, it must needs be that they do them against their wills, and through mere ignorance. For as, according to Plato’s opinion, no soul doth willingly err, so by consequent neither doth it anything otherwise than it ought, but against her will. Therefore are they grieved, whensoever they hear themselves charged, either of injustice, or unconscionableness, or covetousness, or in general, of any injurious kind of dealing towards their neighbours.
Fourthly, that thou thyself doest transgress in many things, and art even such another as they are. And though perchance thou doest forbear the very act of some sins, yet hast thou in thyself an habitual disposition to them, but that either through fear, or vainglory, or some such other ambitious foolish respect, thou art restrained.
Fifthly, that whether they have sinned or no, thou doest not understand perfectly. For many things are done by way of discreet policy; and generally a man must know many things first, before he be able truly and judiciously to judge of another man’s action.
Sixthly, that whensoever thou doest take on grievously, or makest great woe, little doest thou remember then that a man’s life is but for a moment of time, and that within a while we shall all be in our graves.
Seventhly, that it is not the sins and transgressions themselves that trouble us properly; for they have their existence in their minds and understandings only, that commit them; but our own opinions concerning those sins. Remove then, and be content to part with that conceit of thine, that it is a grievous thing, and thou hast removed thine anger. But how should I remove it? How? reasoning with thyself that it is not shameful. For if that which is shameful, be not the only true evil that is, thou also wilt be driven whilest thou doest follow the common instinct of nature, to avoid that which is evil, to commit many unjust things, and to become a thief, and anything, that will make to the attainment of thy intended worldly ends.
Eighthly, how many things may and do oftentimes follow upon such fits of anger and grief; far more grievous in themselves, than those very things which we are so grieved or angry for.
Ninthly, that meekness is a thing unconquerable, if it be true and natural, and not affected or hypocritical. For how shall even the most fierce and malicious that thou shalt conceive, be able to hold on against thee, if thou shalt still continue meek and loving unto him; and that even at that time, when he is about to do thee wrong, thou shalt be well disposed, and in good temper, with all meekness to teach him, and to instruct him better? As for example; My son, we were not born for this, to hurt and annoy one another; it will be thy hurt not mine, my son: and so to show him forcibly and fully, that it is so in very deed: and that neither bees do it one to another, nor any other creatures that are naturally sociable. But this thou must do, not scoffingly, not by way of exprobation, but tenderly without any harshness of words. Neither must thou do it by way of exercise, or ostentation, that they that are by and hear thee, may admire thee: but so always that nobody be privy to it, but himself alone: yea, though there be more present at the same time. These nine particular heads, as so many gifts from the Muses, see that thou remember well:
If thou wilt have a tenth also, receive this tenth gift from Hercules the guide and leader of the Muses: that is a mad man’s part, to look that there should be no wicked men in the world, because it is impossible. Now for a man to brook well enough, that there should be wicked men in the world, but not to endure that any should transgress against himself, is against all equity, and indeed tyrannical.
To be angry is not the part of a man, but that to be meek and gentle, as it savours of more humanity, so of more manhood. That in this, there is strength and nerves, or vigour and fortitude: whereof anger and indignation is altogether void. For the nearer everything is unto unpassionateness, the nearer it is unto power. And as grief doth proceed from weakness, so doth anger. For both, both he that is angry and that grieveth, have received a wound, and cowardly have as it were yielded themselves unto their affections.