by Pierre Hadot
What’s it about?
It’s all about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and an important figure in the branch of philosophy called Stoicism.
Why I read it:
After Meditations became my favorite book of all time when I read it this summer, was eager to learn more about the man and his philosophy.
This book goes very deep into Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy, so by necessity it serves as a pretty solid textbook on Stoicism in general. It delves into the foundational tenets of Stoicism as well as Marcus’ influences and fellow Stoics, Epictetus and Seneca.
On Meditations: One of the most incredible things about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was that he wrote the book only for himself; he never intended for it to be published or read by anyone else. I think this makes the original work seem all the more powerful. Marcus wrote these brilliant, incredibly lucid passages for himself, and for nobody else. He was a humble man who was trying to do his best to live up to his principles, and he was absolutely not trying to preach. Hadot points out, by laboriously grouping together all the passages in Meditations which share a common theme, that there are in fact very few original ideas in the work. You can practically see the pattern of Marcus’ thought as he tries to assimilate the words of others, turn them around in his head, and reformulate them in a way that makes sense to him. They’re not neat or coherent, and they’re not indexed. Sometimes they’re hard to understand at all, or they reference unknown works. And they’re not literary or poetic, but I think that is for the best. Hadot calls the writing of these thoughts a “spiritual exercise.” It gives them authenticity and kind of a forceful beauty and would have been ruined if Meditations had been anything other than a first draft.
On Stoicism in general: As I said, this book is incredible for the way it distills and identifies the fundamental ideas of Stoicism. The basic idea behind Stoicism is this (in my words):
There are two kinds of things in the world– those you can control and those you cannot. Accept the things you cannot and work ceaselessly to perfect the things you can.
That’s it. It’s a very simple philosophy. Or as Hadot says, “There is no good but moral good, and there is no evil but moral evil.” In other words, the good/evil dichotomy exists only inside one’s mind and actions. The Stoic says that everything else– disease, war, suffering, others’ aggression toward you– is completely neutral and is neither good nor evil.
This is what is meant by “The Inner Citadel.” The Stoics believed that your soul is your stronghold. It’s the only thing over which you have complete control, and striving to perfect your soul your intentions in the only thing that matters in life. Old age, violence, and the trials of life may lay waste to your body, but your soul is untouchable to the outside world. It is entirely your own, and it’s maintenance is entirely your own responsibility.
There are three pieces to the Stoic conception of the good life. They are:
1) Judge everything objectively.
You must eliminate all prejudice. See things as they are, and never as anything else. “To lay them bare… to strip away the legend that encrusts them” as Marcus says. When you experience things in the world, in a sense you’re having a dialogue. You see a painting and the painting seems to ask you “Do you like me?” and you respond internally, “I like you. You are good.” When you smell rotting garbage or experience physical pain, your answer is “This is uncomfortable. You are bad.” To the Stoics, this is not ideal. Instead, try to be objective and quiet your inner discourse with the world. See things only as they are, and resist the temptation to add your own thoughts and impressions. Do not judge the value of things in the world, because they are all equal and they are all outside your control anyway.
(To follow this too strictly, in my opinion, is pretty extreme. The perfect Stoic would derive absolutely no pleasure from art, music, sex, food, etc., just as he would feel no pain from hunger, poverty, or discomfort. Luckily I don’t think my will is strong enough to run that risk.)
2) Don’t wish your circumstances to be any different than they are.
The second point is to love your fate, and to fearlessly accept whatever happens to you without complaint. The Stoics had a complicated relationship with Destiny or Fate, but the basic point is that you shouldn’t complain. Anything bad that happens is not an obstacle, but it is actually an opportunity. Your weaknesses are actually your strengths if you frame them correctly in your mind, and when you encounter something blocking your path, it is merely a chance to practice some new virtue that you have been neglecting. Patience, tolerance, persistence, courage, or something else. If you don’t love your fate and respectfully submit to whatever the world throws at you, you will just get stuck complaining about things and feeling sorry for yourself. Stop saying: “Life would be so easy if I only had an Ivy League degree / $X in the bank / the right connections / better parents.” Start saying: “This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and these are the tools I have. What can I do with them?”
Marcus is relentless in his admonition of people who aspire to fame or riches. By remembering your own mortality and the relative insignificance of the entirety of your life, you are more able to realize the indifference of Nature to your tiny little actions, and therefore more accepting of things that occur.
3) Be fair, generous, and dignified, both to yourself and to others.
The first two principles deal with the right thoughts and frame of mind. This is all nice in theory, but what principles should guide our actions day-to-day? What does Stoicism look like in its practical application? That’s number three– right actions. First: you must concentrate every minute on doing what you know is right, on living each minute like it will be your last, and, as Marcus says, “worship your inner power.”
You need to respect yourself by working diligently to do what Nature intended for you, and you must also be respectful and altruistic toward others. Realize that they are not so different from you. All men are brothers, so by doing good to one you are doing good the whole community, including yourself.
This is obviously just a basic introduction to Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius. Like so many things, the fundamentals are simple but there is nearly infinite room to explore the depths and make connections, as Hadot does in his book.
At times it’s a little tedious and academic, but it was a great way to explore the context of Marcus’ Meditations, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Stoicism.
The Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one’s inner discourse. Everything in an individual’s life depends on how he represents things to himself–in other words, how he tells them to himself in inner dialogue. “It’s not things that trouble us,” as Epictetus said, “but our judgements of things,” in other words, our inner discourse about things. . . Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises. He was using writing as a technique or procedure in order to influence himself, and to transform his inner discourse by meditating on the Stoic dogmas and rules of life . . . since the true philosopher is he who is conscious of not yet having attained wisdom. -Hadot
What depends on us are value-judgements, impulses toward action, and desire or aversion; in a word, everything which is our own business. What does not depend on us are the body, wealth, honors, and high positions in office; in a word, everything which is not our own business. -Epictetus