Wednesday, February 22, 2012


For nowhere, either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble, does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity; and I affirm that tranquillity is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.

-Marcus Aurelius; Meditations

I can't say I've had this much fun reading a book of philosophy in awhile since I picked up Meditations, and I suppose I'm enjoying it largely because there is a great deal that is useful in it as well as a great deal that I feel no qualms at all about discarding. This is what I would call philosophy of real life, the sort of thing you get from old guys at work, grandfathers, and other people who one might trust simply because they've had a lot of time to experience life and work out the kinks for themselves. However, one must keep in mind that even though they follow their philosophy because it has worked for them, they will portray it as being in some way the "right" philosophy or the "right" way to do things. As such, the things they say have to be held with a certain skepticism; they claim to have arrived at their conclusions because their conclusions are true and they have discovered that they are true, but maybe there's just a little failure to consider alternatives, a little failure to see how their philosophy stands in relation to all the others, a little comfort-seeking, a little arrogance, some self-elevation.

I am only to the fifth book thus far, and I already want to begin commenting on the book, but I suppose I should wait until I have consumed the book in its entirety before I pour any significant effort into a response. As it stands, here are some general impressions that the book has left on me.

-I think Marcus Aurelius was struggling with a fear of death, he speaks about the fear of death with something of disdain or desperation, almost like he was trying to shame himself out of it. His comments on accepting the shortness of life range from quite interesting (his argument in the 14th point of the second book where he argues that, because we live in the present, all people really lose the same thing at death: a single moment called the present) to the boneheaded (his argument in the 50th point of the fourth book that because the past is infinite and the future is infinite, it does not matter whether a life last three days or three generations, which is a confusion of which measure to use to get a meaningful measurement).

-His thoughts on the workings of the universe and his recommendation that we accept fate strike very close to home for me. For the first time about six months ago I saw that determinism can be a profound comfort, not a disappointment. His thoughts on this topic are, to me, the most valuable.

-His comments on being satisfied with one's portion has not aged well. He repeatedly exhorts the reader (although, these are directed to himself, aren't they?) to be satisfied with what portion of the universe has been allotted to him. That may have worked in Aurelius's society where one knew early on what role one would play in the world, it works less well in our society where we have a lot of options available to us and a lot of ways to improve our lot in life. In short, a lot more of our lot in life is determined by our behavior rather than the events that preceded us.

-His central concept of living according to nature is flawed. If I understand him, I suppose that the whole thing must be swept away if one accepts a fact/value distinction. Aurelius looks to nature for guidance in his behavior and believes that he can strive to live according to his nature; on the contrary, I say that even those things he finds reprehensible in himself and humanity are just as much a part of his nature. He has no choice but to live according to nature. Of course, he advocates living according to reason, but he directs his reason toward nature to help him determine his course. All in all, a case of too much faith in reason and facts, which lends the book a creepy feeling in the more anarchistic areas of my soul.

I'm considering doing commentaries on single aphorisms that I like later on, or perhaps just a response to the book as a whole, or perhaps never bringing it up again. I have not yet decided.

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