Retreat to yourself

Now is the time and here is the place. There is no need to seek solace in faraway places and idyllic spots. Your best retreat lies within and you will return from it refreshed and ready to resume your duties:

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and you too are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. Nowhere does a man find more quiet or more freedom from trouble than in his own soul, particularly when, by looking into his own inner thoughts, he is immediately in perfect tranquility. And I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to yourself this retreat, and renew yourself; and let your principles be brief and fundamental. Then as soon as you recur to them, they will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send you back free from all discontent with the things you return to.

From Meditation 4.3

Familiarity breeds content

Continuing with Meditation 3.1 (or 3.2 depending on the translation), Marcus argues that only those who are fully familiar with nature will see the true beauty of all these ‘unintended consequences’. Seeing beauty everywhere also helps to put conventional beauty (for example the beauty of youth) in perspective.

[…] if a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure. And so he will see even the real gaping jaws of wild beasts with no less pleasure than those which painters and sculptors show by imitation; and in an old woman and an old man he will be able to see a certain maturity and comeliness; and the attractive loveliness of young persons he will be able to look on with chaste eyes; and many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but only to him who has become truly familiar with nature and her works.

I don’t know how much of a key component of ancient Stoicism this contemplation of nature was; there is less of it in Epictetus and Seneca. However, it seemed important to Marcus – and so it is to me.

Seeing the beauty in everything: things that please the mind

In Meditation 3.1, Marcus notes that there is beauty even in the side effects and ‘unintended consequences’ of natural processes. Their fleeting nature almost intensifies their beauty. He has a true artist’s eye:

We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion’s eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things — though they are far from being beautiful, if a man should examine them severally — still, because they are consequent upon the things which are formed by nature, help to adorn them, and they please the mind.

The problem with travel is you can’t leave yourself behind

Seneca (letter 104) credits Scocrates with this insight:

Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: “It serves you right!  You travelled in your own company!!” Oh what a blessing it would be for some men to wander away from themselves! As it is, they cause themselves vexation, worry, demoralization, and fear! What profit is there in crossing the sea and in going from one city to another?  If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place but another personality.

I’m a reluctant traveller myself, so Seneca’s critique really hit home:

What benefit has travel of itself ever been able to give anyone?  No restraint upon pleasure, no bridling of desire, no checking of bad temper, no crushing of the wild assaults of passion, no opportunity to rid the soul of evil. Travelling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar.

And:

There will be no benefit to you in this hurrying to and fro; for you are travelling with your emotions and are followed by your afflictions.

The real solution to all this anguish is not travel but philsophy:

We ought rather to spend our time in study, and to cultivate those who are masters of wisdom, learning something which has been investigated, but not settled. By this means the mind can be relieved of a most wretched serfdom, and won over to freedom.

Philosophy holds out a much higher promise than the fleeting relief of travel. By making the mind “fully master of itself”, philosophy allows us to “find seclusion even in the midst of business“.

The only harbour safe from the seething storms of this life is scorn of the future, a firm stand, a readiness to receive Fortune’s missiles full in the breast, neither skulking nor turning the back.

The letter is worth reading in full.