Why I Read Marcus Aurelius

I could simply title this “why I read philosophy.” Part of it has to do with what I hope to learn. I am not anywhere close to emulating the self-discipline evinced by Stoics like Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. But there is something to be said for just reading a work like The Meditations. By that I am referring to detachment. Along with the the constant deluge of information one also hears continual reminders about the need to “unplug.” It’s not really new advice. Centuries ago Marcus Aurelius said: “Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of Good, and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim….”

Along those lines I’ve also read that too much news can be bad for your health. It can cause stress and anxiety. I find that even good writing about bad things – intelligent current events commentary – can be draining just because one can be fixated on and depressed by all the problems outside oneself. To quote the Stoic emperor again: “Nothing is more melancholy than to compass the whole creation… peering curiously into the secrets of others’ souls, without once understanding that to hold fast to the divine spirit within, and serve it loyally, is all that is needful. Such service involves keeping it pure from passion, and from aimlessness, and from discontent with the works of gods or men….” I don’t think Marcus Aurelius means to be uncompassionate. He merely puts a limit to worrying. We can be there to help others when they need it. But more than that lies outside us.

Finally I am impressed by the Stoic sense of providence. “The whole divine economy is pervaded by Providence. Even the vagaries of chance have their place in Nature’s scheme; that is, in the intricate tapestry of the ordinances of Providence.” Marcus Aurelius may not have understood the nature of God in the same way as Christians. But the important question for the average person (whether Marcus Aurelius or myself) is one of intention. Did these philosophers view God as a benevolent ruler of the universe who exerted an influence over human affairs? Did they believe in the practice of goodness, including traits like fortitude, humility and controlling one’s passions? Plato and Aristotle tell us that merely reading about virtue does not make one virtuous. True. Yet I believe that intellectual contemplation by itself helps put one in the right frame of mind for acting well, or at least distancing oneself from the things that may cause one to behave badly.

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