Monday, October 18, 2010

Meditations on Meditations

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

When Rob died, I was reading the Stoics and Dante's Inferno. This was not planned. It was an accident of my reading lists, although my reading of the former works at that critical time smacked a bit of divine superintendence to me. It was, for me, the right words delivered at the right moment. The Stoics have helped me through a difficult time (although, to reveal a chink in my armor and have a moment of sincerity on this too too public blog, I should admit that I say "through" with a hint of ironic, self-deprecating cynicism) with a stipulation.  I'll come back to my closing thoughts on my Stoical sojourn in a moment.  First, I need to talk a bit about this final Stoic work in the Harvard Classics series, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the emperor of Rome from the year of our Lord 161 until his death in 180.  He was one of the better Roman Emperors, especially at that time, although one of the dark marks in his otherwise fine record is that he did persecute the early Christians for a time. This was apparently buckling to popular opinion on his part. This is not one of the more important details of his biography as he was hardly a Nero, but it may be worth noting that scholars have apparently tried to rescue Marcus Aurelius from this black spot on his record. George Long (the translator), in an essay following the text, mentions a document that has surfaced which claims to have been written by Aurelius begging the Senate to not persecute the Christians. Long says it's a rather ham-fisted forgery and it is unlikely that Aurelius put that much thought into the matter at all.

The saddest part of the text is that it is a book written for one seeking to live a virtuous life, full of the wisdom gained by the insightful ruler, apparently for the amelioration of his son, Commodus. Commodus was one of the bad emperors. It was Pax Romana under Aurelius, but Commodus threw a spanner right into those works. In the case of this book, I envision a scene much like the claim of old Bosie Douglas upon receipt of Wilde's De Profundis that he threw it into the fire unread.

I got slightly less out of Aurelius than I did from the excellent Epictetus, partially because Aurelius was a little more obscure and Long admittedly tried to preserve Aurelius' innocence of rhetorical skill. This lead to some confusing passages. But I still found it to be an excellent work. Aurelius camps long on contentment which, as a Christian myself, I find rather lacking without the focus on glorifying God. Aurelius has a great deal of that as well, although he and I would be speaking of different Gods. However, his focus on chucking attachments of pain and pleasure put me in mind of the areas in which Buddhism and Christianity meet in ways I find helpful.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak on the struggle that ensued for me from the Stoic presentation of contentment. I found it a bit hollow and soon realized why. It stems back to the old question "Is it possible to have morality without God?"  A question to which my personal answer, at least in my experience in my own life, is "no." You see, Aurelius' instructions for a life of contentment are all well and good. If followed as prescribed they should effect the desired outcome. But that's just it. For me (and, I daresay, for Commodus), it lacked the reasoning as to why one should desire to, as it were, "keep it on the rails." Why does it matter to live a life of contentment over one of gross hedonism? Why, even, is it preferable to alive or dead? In the case of the Harvard Classics series, one supposes that its place in the progression, following Socrates' fairly solid case for living a virtuous life for the sake of living a virtuous life, it offers some keen tools. However, taken on its own, it's a bit like having a detailed and easy to follow recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, but having no idea how to eat.

Fortunately, I have an answer which causes all of the pieces to fall into place and makes contentment a very valuable lesson indeed. The answer I have is the focus of a life toward God and the outworkings that stem from that focus.

However, even more helpful in this temporal life, I thought, was his focus on social justice. He brought forth concepts like: what is bad for the hive is bad for the bee. He also appeals to our nature in doing what is set before us, just as a fig tree produces figs, do what you are to do.

Also, he is a bit starkly honest in admitting that life is not all about happiness and good times. I remember when I was a child having a reaction at a certain part of a popular children's film. It was the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and there was a line that the Oompa-Loompas sing in one of their finger-wagging songs, after having dispensed their advice concerning the chapter of the story that had just closed, along the lines of "you will live in happiness too, like the Oompa-Loompas doompity-do." I remember thinking that they didn't strike me as being particularly happy-seeming. They seemed rather stern and, as it were, stoic. But age brings perspective and now I see that there is wisdom in the house of mourning. So often I've found that living at the frequency of levity makes the fall much further when tragedy inevitably strikes. Also, if one maintains a level of gravitas in one's character, one is more accessible to those who need someone in times of trouble.

Aurelius and the rest of the Stoics are often criticized on this point, but then, we do live in a remarkably silly culture. I personally think that there is an honesty there that many are uncomfortable with. We have no guarantee of happiness and certainly none of longevity. Aurelius' advice is, in the most simple terms, "be content regardless." If you can find contentment in times of struggle, you can tap into it at any time. Again, I find the divorce from my spiritual walk unhelpful, but remarrying the two I've found this to be a great help to me, a great comfort during a great trial.

In the case of Rob, I've been left holding a bag full of questions. Why him and not me? Why now? What was that all about? What do I do for the remainder of my life without being able to talk to him? The Stoics don't answer those questions directly because no one can. Either there is no answer or it's not for us to know. But now I feel a bit more equipped to be content in my circumstances. Now it's just a matter of employing those tools at the necessary moment instead of wallowing in discontent and worry.


  1. I know there are those who believe morality need not be burdened with theism -- Umberto Eco, for one, wrote on this topic in a correspondence debate with an Italian Cardinal. He argues, basically, that there is reason for being good without bringing God into it. You could argue that there are tangible benefits to being moral. I can see that. However, what I wonder is, for those who do not believe in God, how do they confront their appetites? I suppose this is a question particular to me, who by basic personality would have ended up a complete hedonist had I not been raised with a strong dose of Baptist guilt and morality.

    For as much as I may often resent aspects of the churches I grew up in, I have become increasingly aware of how my conservative, literalistic, fundamentalist upbringing deeply implanted a moral compass which I'm not sure I'm successfully imparting to my own children. For me, whatever limitations, bigotry, or judgementalism I've had to confront in myself, I know that faith has made me at least something less of a monster.

    As for wisdom in the house of mourning, I confess that my levity is often ironic -- laughter where the only other option would be tears, and I find that sorrow and joy are not at all opposites, but are often found together, as in the Lenten "Joyful Sorrow." Joy is a consolation in sorrow, and joy is informed by sorrow -- the beauty that is revealed not in spite of sorrow, but because of it. It's a form of beauty that mere happiness can barely even acknowledge, let alone comprehend.

    I was 15 or 16 when my favorite cousin died. Because she sang, well-meaning people would offer stale comfort about her singing in heaven. A trite comfort that made and makes me positively angry. And because we are Christians, often sorrow itself was questioned as something suspect, with the implication that we needed to be more faithful to really believe in the things we preached. I remember being angry quite often, wishing I had it in me to be rude enough to tell them to take their pitiful comfort and stuff themselves. We mourn for ourselves, for our loss, for our diminished world. No amount of spiritual treacle is going to fill the void that now exists in our present tense. There is nothing less comforting than the well-meaning insincerity.

  2. Christopher,

    "Joy is a consolation in sorrow, and joy is informed by sorrow -- the beauty that is revealed not in spite of sorrow, but because of it. It's a form of beauty that mere happiness can barely even acknowledge, let alone comprehend."

    Good words...."like apples of gold in settings of silver".

    The expectation of "spiritual treacle" was exactly what led me for several days to avoid seeing anyone who hadn't been with me at my mother's deathbed. I didn't wish to see another soul who had not witnessed the struggle of death.

  3. Thanks, Laurie. I can definitely understand the avoidance you describe. There are certain times and experiences which even empathy unintentionally trivializes. The sharing is something very different from any kindness or compassion that can come afterwards.

  4. Yes, I should probably have highlighted a bit more boldly that it is me alone I was speaking of who cannot have morality without God. I've tried and when meaning is removed and I'm faced with the options of a virtuous moral life or booze and skirt chasing... I don't naturally tend toward morality.

    I'm not so insecure in my beliefs that I fall into the trap of suggesting that those outside of my belief system must needs be immoral. In my case, I've always felt a close kinship with Evelyn Waugh's description of his conversion "It was either Christianity or chaos."
    Which is not to say that religion is a crutch to get me to be a decent person. It's similar to why I don't smoke anymore (along with having developed asthma, but that's neither here nor there.) I loved smoking and I miss it tremendously. But the "meaning" of the health risks stopped me from doing that. I am, apparently, a man who does best with meaning and explanations, reasons for doing and not doing things.

    You experience mirrored mine in a lot of ways. I've also experienced mourning treated as being suspect. One needs to mourn as one has experienced a real loss. Even if your loved one is with the Lord now, the fact remains that you will have to spend the rest of your life without them.

  5. Hmm. My smoking metaphor was highly flawed. We're dog-sitting a chihuahua and my focus was split. Anyway, I think you probably get that the desire to live a virtuous life in light of a forgiving God flows from the abundance of a grateful heart in light of salvation and so forth and so on. Not out of fear of repercussions.

  6. My life has been a movement from a faith that was largely fear-based, to one that is based on hope, from a juridical soteriology to one that is couched in the erotic love of God for man.

    And I don't say that fear has no use -- it probably kept me from making a worse mess of my life. Only I wonder what I would have done with it had I not existed in a sort of perfectionist timidity against error. How much of that would have remained had I not been taught the fear of condemnation? And is the person who abstains from sin out of fear in any way better off than the one who learns to abstain out of an awakening to the love of God?

    I guess I wonder if morality is worth a damn if it is not a response from and toward love. It's not that the agnostic or atheist cannot have morality, but if morality is just a matter of self-regulation, what is its virtue? I ask because I wonder, not because I suggest an answer. But I suspect that wherever there is a strong desire to live morally, there is a soul struggling with love, regardless what his mind may say about the concept of "God." Knowing God like some kind of theorem never helped anyone, anyway. Knowledge of God, of "Truth," is far more like the knowledge one has of his spouse than of his taxes... after all, we believe that "The Truth" is not just personal, but A Person.

    I'm babbling. For that I apologize. My brain is all muddled from stress and distraction.

  7. Christopher, You have no idea how much I identify with what you've just said. I wouldn't call it babbling (though I don't suppose that really proves it's not).

  8. Heh... thanks. Well, if not babbling, at least rambling. One of my weaknesses is theologizing and waxing poetic more than acting on it and living it out in the little day-to-day necessities. That used to draw me into apologetics and debates, but at some point I realized it was a whole lot more about me being persuasive than anything else. I wish actions came as easily as thoughts and words.