Monday, October 18, 2010

Meditating with Marcus Aurelius

This brief post has in fact several origins. Such is because its brevity had until now dissuaded me from posting it until I could write at greater length and significance. Yet now I am prodded into posting. Again, the origins are as follows:

1) I want to note that Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius from 2009 is excellent and well worth reading. I'm not too keen on reviewing biographies, not quite knowing what to say. Aside from whether or not it held your interest and informed you, I suppose you "review" the ideas, in which case you could review those ideas by themselves. Anyway, it is well worth reading.

2) Likewise for the Hicks' translation of the writings of Marcus Aurelius, the "exhortations to myself." Their translation is currently published by Scribner under the title, "The Emperor's Handbook." It is far and away the best translation I have read. Oddly, though, the thin volume is a hardcover and while the cover is of a high quality the pages are of a very poor quality: dry and slightly yellowed after only a few years.

3) Philosophy can be a very ascetic discipline, sometimes, even often, too ascetic. Likewise even moral philosophy, which considers others and their rights, always seems to reduce to what it is best that I do

4) As regular readers know we pay manners a good deal of attention here. We like to maintain a gentlemanly disposition and keep up at APLV a congenial yet vigorous atmosphere. One might say most briefly that we refrain from being needlessly intemperate. This requires some kind of understanding of one's self in relation to his surroundings. Now as you might guess I'm inclined to make a philosophical problem out of that situation: i.e. people need philosophy and there really ought to be an argument as to why manners are necessary. Yet many manners are simply traditional. Too I don't think many people really want to quibble about the philosophical roots and dimensions of manners.  I think Fred Astaire was right too when he said, "The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any."

So lack of manners can be part lack of understanding and part lack of emulation. (Let's not split any more hairs about that, shall we?) Some people are, of course, rude. Yet something rather perturbed me just before. In the comments section on what I had considered a particularly civilized corner of the internet an author, scholar, and bright fellow reacted to a rather innocuous comment by saying, as if to someone else, "This nobody. . ." Aside from having seen arguments to better advantage, and what is that comment other than an attempt to discredit, what a nasty thing to say. It is even nastier upon further consideration. Now nasty things get said all the time and I wouldn't waste your time calling on everyone to be nice. I'm sure you could find something quite intemperate on cable news after only a few seconds.

My point is that he is a well-thought of and, I'm sure, normal person. Yet he just publicly referred to someone else as, essentially, being an insignificant non-entity, and when I read that I thought, "I don't want to be like him." That's what reminded me of Marcus Aurelius, since Book I of the sayings collected and usually published as his "Meditations" begins with a series of reflections on people in his life. He writes on about sixteen or so people, "From him I learned X."
Alexander the Platonist cautioned me against saying or writing in a letter, either too often or without absolutely needing to, "I'm too busy," as well as against using the demands of work as a constant excuse for ducking my social obligations and family duties.

Catulus taught me not to ignore a friend who is cross with me, even if I have done nothing to deserve his bad temper, but to seek to regain his affection.

My father enjoyed, without pretension or self-indulgence, the luxuries that his fortune lavished upon him; but when these were not available, he never seemed to miss them. . . He respected sound learning and those who seek the truth, and he remained on good terms with the rest, but from a distance.

From my father I learned "a cheerful and friendly disposition, within reason" and "a true regard for those who have mastered a particular skill or subject."
There is a great deal to discuss when considering these writings, but here I just want to note that this seems to me to be a fruitful exercise. The reflection is practical and personal, centered on people we know. It helps one see oneself in relation to others and to learn from and appreciate them. Also and considering our discussion of manners above, it helps one learn from the mistakes of others. Have we all not, at some point, met someone not so dissimilar from ourselves and not really enjoyed his company? On the other hand is there not someone we seek to emulate in some way? Surely most people we know are worthy of emulating in some way. This reflection seems also to emphasize considering character, our own and others', and not just isolated deeds. Do we like our character, do we work at improving it or is it a passive process of ossification by which it changes? What about the people we know? Do we want to be like them? Do we like them but still not want to be like them?

It seems to me this type of reflection might make for a third of a program of reflection. One like this which focuses on reflecting on others, one which focuses on one's personal character (perhaps something like Benjamin Franklin's "Thirteen Virtues" books) and something focusing on spirituality, like the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

That probably sounds like a lot of reflection to some people, but consider the alternative.

No comments:

Post a Comment