On Marcus Book IV

From time to time, I like to post on the r/Stoicism subreddit, where I attempt to answer questions, clarify concepts, or just read about what other people are posting on Stoicism. I find that trying to answer questions and clarify ideas greatly helps my own understanding of the material at hand.

Recently, somebody asked for help understanding what Marcus meant in Book 4.1, as they found certain parts of it to be confusing. I gave a relatively lengthy response, and figured that it might be interesting to some folks here to see what I wrote.

For those of you that do not have a copy of Meditations handy, the Robin Hard translation (my favorite translation) of Meditations 4.1 goes like this:

When the ruling power within us is in harmony with nature, it confronts events in such a way that it always adapts itself readily to what is feasible and is granted to it. For it attaches its preference to no specific material; rather, it sets out to attain its primary objects, but not without reservation, and if it comes up against something else instead, it converts it into material for itself, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it. These would have extinguished a little lamp, but a blazing fire appropriates in an instant all that is heaped on to it, and devours it, making use of that very material to leap even higher. – Meditations, 4.1

In my response I tried to break down the passage line by line, so lets do that again here to see what it says in detail.

When the ruling power within us is in harmony with nature, it confronts events in such a way that it always adapts itself readily to what is feasible and is granted to it.

The ruling power within us is our (will/character/reason). When we adapt these thing to be in line with the way reality actually is, we can easily adapt to events based on what is actually possible for us.

For it attaches its preference to no specific material; rather, it sets out to attain its primary objects, but not without reservation,

We generally have preferences that we seek (the Stoic’s preferred indifferents), such as good health. It is ok to seek these things, but only with an added reservation ‘if nothing prevents it’ or rather ‘fate permitting’. This is the Stoic archer, who aims at what is preferred, but when they let go of the arrow, they understand that the result is no longer up to them.

and if it comes up against something else instead, it converts it into material for itself, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it.

All obstacles that come our way in life, can be converted into material for growth by a virtuous character.

These would have extinguished a little lamp, but a blazing fire appropriates in an instant all that is heaped on to it, and devours it, making use of that very material to leap even higher.

We do not control what happens to us, but a virtuous character, even just a character that is striving to be virtuous, is no small lamp, but a blazing fire that can convert all obstacles into a chance to be more virtuous. We can make use of obstacles in the same way that a fire makes use of wood to grow and increase in size.

And a further note below.

I recently finished reading through William O. Stephens’s, Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and honestly cannot recommend it enough if you are looking for deeper insight into what Marcus is trying to say. William ties it all together very well with some interesting insights. He actually talks on this very part of Book 4. I think he overall puts it better than I, so here is an excerpt from his book:

A second elemental image Marcus uses to describe the invincible mind is a blazing fire. Isn’t it enough, Marcus asks himself, to live his brief life right? He think he’s missing the raw material, namely, the opportunities. What is any of this but training for his logos, in life observed accurately and scientifically? Marcus urges himself to keep at it until it’s full digested. As a strong stomach digests whatever it eats, and as a blazing fire takes whatever you throw on it and makes it light and flame, so too Marcus strives to train his logos to convert everything that happens to him into good actions and right living (x. 31). Our logos (reason) has this extraordinary power to deal with whatever comes its way.

Marcus writes that our inward power, a rigorously trained, rationally empowered mind, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces, to what is possible. This mind needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow. it turns obstacles into fuel as a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s throw on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it, and makes it burn still higher (iv. 1).

The well-trained mind is not only unharmed by so-called obstacles, it is actually strengthened by all challenges that confront it. More than simply enduring what occurs, such a mind obeys nature by embracing what happens to it. The inner strength and resilience of the virtuous mind radiate continuously from it. – William O. Stephens Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 5, Virtues, Vices, and Junk: The Self Cleaning Spring and the All Consuming Fire

Hopefully that was interesting to some of you. I find the imagery and insights in this passage to be very inspirational, as well as a helpful reminder on how to deal with present difficulties.

 

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On Virtue

So last time we talked about Eudaimonia and how it essentially means having the best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. We also mentioned  that the Stoics believe that the best way to obtain Eudaimonia was to be virtuous.

The Stoics believed that virtue was both necessary and sufficient for a life of Eudaimonia. This differentiated them from many other Greek philosophical schools at the time who believed that virtue was necessary for a life of Eudaimonia. Other schools, such as the Peripatetics, believed that virtue was necessary for a good life, but that you also needed other things as well, such as friends, family, money, good food, etc…

So what did the Stoics mean by virtue? And how could virtue alone be sufficient for a good life?

What the Stoics really meant by virtue, aretewas something like excellence of character. There were four cardinal virtues that were required for excellence of character. These virtues were temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom. These virtues are very broad, and encompass a variety of sub virtues. Here is a general break down of the four cardinal virtues.

Practical wisdom – Understanding how to act and feel correctly. Includes good judgment, discretion, and resourcefulness. It is the all encompassing virtue, the other virtues are really just specific manifestations of practical wisdom.

Temperance – Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, and lust. Includes propriety, sense of honor, and self-control. It is wisdom applied to matters of choice.

Courage – Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful, especially death and disaster. Includes perseverance, confidence, and magnanimity. It is wisdom applied to endurance.

Justice – Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level. Knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. Includes piety, kindness, and sociability. It is wisdom applied to social living.

So essentially, if you have all of these virtues, and act on them correctly, you will live a good life. Sounds pretty good to me right?

But what about money, friends, family, pleasure, etc…?

Well, the Stoics thought that it would be nice to have these things, but they didn’t really think that they were necessary for a life of Eudaimonia, the good life. Why is this the case? This is because the Stoics classified these things as being outside of our control. The only thing that is fully within our control is how we act, essentially our character and our actions (they were compatibilists). If we allow ourselves to depend on externals for our happiness (money, pleasure, etc…), we will at some point become disappointed, or as Epictetus liked to say, we will become wretched. We will become anxious when we try to obtain these externals, and depressed when we fail. You should not rely on these externals for your happiness. Instead, you already have everything you need to live a good life full of joyfulness and tranquility, and that is a life of Virtue.

It is important to note that the Stoics did not forbid people from having money, friends, family, small pleasures, etc… they were not ascetics like the early Cynics were. They separated these things into what they called preferred and dispreferred indifferents. It is ok to have and pursue these things (money, family, friends) as long as they do not detract from your ability to pursue a life of virtue. In pursuing these externals you must not turn to vice, the opposites of the virtues.

This is not an easy task to accomplish. The only one to fully accomplish this goal is considered to be a Stoic sage, and we are not even sure if such a person ever existed. Perhaps Socrates, Zeno, or Cato the younger are examples of sages, but we are not really sure. Consistently achieving these virtues is something that must be worked on every day, perhaps, for the rest of your life. And that is why we should all be prokoton, one who makes progress towards virtue.

And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if I’m not too bad, that is good enough for me.

– Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.35

For additional reading on Stoicism and virtue, I encourage you to read the r/Stoicism FAQ, the IEP entry on Stoicism,  and this blog post by Christopher Gill about the virtues. Much of the information in this particular blog post was pulled from these resources.

This will be my final post for 2016, so I wish all of you happy holidays and a eudaimonic new year!