Permanence and Impermanence

A recurrent theme in Stoicism (repeated often by Marcus Aurelius) is that nothing is permanent and everything is subject to decay, and so becoming attached to things is a recipe for unhappiness. In one of Seneca’s longer letters (number 65), it emerges that in fact there is something that is permanent, namely Reason (or we could say the Logos).

This point arises from quote a long discussion of the cause(s) of things. Seneca contrasts the Stoic doctrine of causes, in which there is just one cause (Reason), with Aristotle and Plato’s theories. In particular, Plato identified five causes, one of which was the Idea or Pattern of a material thing (I am fairly sure that here Seneca is referring to the platonic Forms).

Seneca describes some interesting features of the Pattern, while arguing (in paragraph 13) that it is not actually the cause itself, but only “an indispensable tool of the cause”. In paragraph 7 he says that patterns/ideas come from the mind of God:

… his mind comprehends the harmonies and the measures of the whole totality of things which are to be carried out; he is filled with these shapes which Plato calls the “ideas,” – imperishable, unchangeable, not subject to decay.

Thus people (men) can die but idea of humanity lives on:

And therefore, though men die, humanity itself, or the idea of man, according to which man is moulded, lasts on, and though men toil and perish, it suffers no change.

As the Stoic God is identical with Reason and we all have a (divine) spark of Reason within us, it surely follows that we ourselves also contain something imperishable and unchanging. Thus while externals are perishable and impermanent, what we have internally, Reason or Virtue, is not. So while we shouldn’t become attached to externals (which are indifferent), we should on the contrary become attached to “internals”, i.e. Reason and Virtue.

I think this is a very therapeutic notion – the injunction to accept change can be quite unsettling, despite counter arguments for why it should not (for instance, that accepting change helps put things into context). I suspect most people have an inner longing for something fixed and secure in their lives. It can’t be things themselves but it can the causes of things, embodying the inexorable laws of Reason.

Breathing in the cosmos

Here is a very beautiful passage from Marcus Aurelius (8.54 in full):

No longer let your breathing only act in concert with the air which surrounds you, but let your intelligence also now be in harmony with the intelligence which embraces all things. For the intelligent power is no less diffused in all parts and pervades all things for him who is willing to draw it to him than the aerial power for him who is able to respire it.

A note (by Gill) in the Hard translation points out that in Stoicism the mind functions via ‘breath’ (pneuma) – so MA’s comparison here seems apt.

But also, while not an exact comparison, the image recalls meditation techniques that focus on the breath as a means of liberation from individual attachments and elevation to a more universal perspective.

The stress here, though (as befitting Stoicism), is on the cognitive: we are still thinking and using our intelligence – but now it is harmonised with the cosmic intelligence, and moreover we are accessing its “power”. Note also that this power is always there and available to us – we only have to want to draw it in to us.

The sphere revisted

Following my post from 2012, I thought I would collect together all the references to (Empedocles’) sphere in the Meditations.

From 8.41:

The things however which are proper to the understanding no other man is used to impede, for neither fire, nor iron, nor tyrant, nor abuse, touches it in any way. When it has been made a sphere, it continues a sphere.

From 11.12:

The spherical form of the soul maintains its figure, when it is neither extended towards any object, nor contracted inwards, nor dispersed nor sinks down, but is illuminated by light, by which it sees the truth, the truth of all things and the truth that is in itself.

From 12.3:

Therefore if you will separate from yourself, that is, from your understanding, whatever others do or say, and whatever you have done or said yourself, and whatever future things trouble you because they may happen, and whatever in the body which envelops you or in the breath (life), which is by nature associated with the body, is attached to you independent of your will, and whatever the external circumfluent vortex whirls round, so that the intellectual power exempt from the things of fate can live pure and free by itself, doing what is just and accepting what happens and saying the truth: if you will separate, I say, from this ruling faculty the things which are attached to it by the impressions of sense, and the things of time to come and of time that is past, and will make yourself like Empedocles’ sphere, “All round, and in its joyous rest reposing”; and if you will strive to live only what is really your life, that is, the present, then you will be able to pass that portion of life which remains for you up to the time of your death, free from perturbations, nobly, and obedient to your own daemon (to the god that is within you).


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.

On prosocial behaviour (2)

Marcus then responds positively to the question:

Must a man then be one of these, who act like this without observing it?

The next part of the text is not completely clear and seems to differ subtlely between the Long, Hard and Staniforth translations. My interpretation is that Marcus deals with an objection from his interlocutor, that as a social being one necessarily knows one is behaving prosocially:

But this very thing is necessary, the observation of what a man is doing: for, it may be said, it is characteristic of the social animal to perceive that he is working in a social manner, and indeed to wish that his social partner also should perceive it.

Marcus acknowedges this as true, yet claims it still falls short of the full truth.

It is true what you say, but you do not rightly understand what is now said: and for this reason you will become one of those I spoke of before, for even they are misled by a certain show of reason. But if you choose to understand the meaning of what is said, do not fear that for this reason you will omit any social act.

In other words (I think) we have a delicate balancing act to perform. Prosocial behaviour is a conscious philosophical choice, yet we need to get into the habit of doing it unconsciously – or perhaps not let it “go to our heads”?

On prosocial behaviour (1)

Marcus Aurelius holds us to quite high standards when it comes to prosocial behaviour. He develops what I think is quite a subtle argument in Meditation 5.6. I will deal with it in a couple of posts. First, he presents three prototypical motivations for prosocial acts:

One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down to his account as a favour conferred. Another is not ready to do this, but in his own mind he still thinks of the man as being in his debt, and he knows what he has done. A third, in a sense, does not even know what he has done, but he is like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks for nothing more after it has once produced its proper fruit. Or like a horse when he has run, a dog when he has tracked the game, or a bee when it has made the honey. Therefore such a man, when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce more grapes next season.

Thus there are three types of people: those who expect to be repaid for their good deeds; those who don’t expect a reward but still regard others as in their debt; and those who do good deeds as part of their nature without giving it a second thought.

Be like the headland…

Marcus Aurelius has a mediation (4.49) related to Epictetus’ ideas of turning adversity to advantage. Rather than complaining about being subjected to trying circumstances, we should consider our good luck that we (thanks to our stoic training) are able to rise above them:

Be like the headland against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it. Unhappy am I because this has happened to me. Not so: happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future. For such a thing as this might have happened to every man; but every man would not have continued to be free from pain on such an occasion. Why then is that rather a misfortune than this a good fortune? … Remember then on
every occasion which leads to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.

NB: I prefer “headland” (the Maxwell Staniforth translation) to “promontory” (the George Long tranlsation) .

Stay calm

Meditation 11.11 preceeds the one I cited yesterday. Again it is about the soul remaining calm, dignified and intact:

These things may not come to you, the pursuits and avoidances of which disturb you, but in some sense you still go to them. So let your judgement about them be at rest, and they will remain quiet, and you will not be seen either pursuing or avoiding.