Thursday, October 3, 2019

At home with the philosopher emperor

I have been rereading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the excellent recent translation by Gregory Hays. I opened the book at random and found my favorite line (“A man’s life is dyed in the color of his imagination”) rephrased in different English: "Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts." On the next the page, I came to essential counsel: what seems to be in your way may be your way. Marcus Aurelius, in the Hays version, puts it like this:

"Our actions may be impeded...but there can be no impeding our intentions or their dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." [Book 5, 20]

Stoic encouragement, from 19 centuries ago, to make friends with our blocks and look for opportunity in any setback.

I turned back to the beginning of the book, possibly not to be recommended since the contents are not structured in any way. Book 1 might seem to belong at the beginning, since it is mostly composed with the emperor's testimonials to mentors (above all Antoninus, the previous emperor). But after this we get recurring ideas and no apparent evolution in personal thinking. The division of the books was probably dictated by the space available on a single papyrus scroll; you come to the end of one and start a new book.
    In his introduction, Hays reminds us that Marcus was not writing for publication and maybe only for an audience of one: himself. He did not give his reflections a title. He wrote a New Thought book for himself, to remind him how to respond to adversity and why he should get out of bed in the morning.
    Throughout he insists that we can come to no real harm if we follow the Logos in ourselves and in the cosmos. It seems that Logos here means something similar to the Dharma in Eastern thought.
     Life is short, Marcus reminds us again and again. And at the end, it seems, we either dissipate as atoms or stream into a greater light. There is no indication here that Marcus believed in a personal afterlife. He certainly did not believe that it matters whether we are remembered by others. They will die too, and those who come later will forget all of us.
There is the stern military injunction: stand at your post, fulfill your assignments, be a Roman. Not surprising in a man compelled to spend so much time with the legions – fighting in Germania, suppressing the Sarmatians, containing the Parthians, dealing with the revolt of Cassius.
   Knowledge has three divisions for him: physics, logic, ethics. His writings are devoted to the third: to mortal duty towards others and towards the order of the universe. He affirms – no doubt against all external evidence – that whatever happens in the world is for the best, that God or gods have a secret plan in conformity with Logos.
    Like Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning, the Stoic emperor contends that whatever our circumstances, we always have the power to choose our attitude. We can go into an inner fortress that is unassailable from without.

Illustration: Teasing the HG Curtain

I lay down the book, stretch out on the bed,and close my eyes.I immediately see a beautiful woman in a red dress. She swings on theater curtains, opening and closing my view of the space beyond. I see a giant head in profile. It looks like a Roman portrait bust. Beyond it, the scene is bright and warmly lit but undefined from where I am observing. Shall I go through the curtain?

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