Our Empire, Ourselves

Well, for various reasons, I have been reading a lot of other stuff not on the list. I took a stab at Lucretius in Latin but it was a slog. I will attempt it with a better edition and better self-preparation. Aquinas is also still waiting for me to forget my boredom with him.

In the meantime, I decided to tackle Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' Meditations. Despite being written by a Roman Emperor, the Meditations are actually in Greek. The translation I have picked is likely not for everyone. Hutcheson and Moor's translation is considered an important part of the Scottish Enlightenment and overall efforts in the English-speaking world to harmonize pagan Stoicism with Christianity. Their footnotes are pretty useful. This new edition from Liberty Fund also has copious additional end-notes from the editors. It is probably not the most readable translation. The most commonly recommended translation in my circles is this one by Gregory Hays. While Hays' translation seems quite readable, I chose Hutcheson and Moor because the specialized Stoic vocabulary seems more consistently and faithfully translated. But 18th-century prose may be more of an impediment for other readers. Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature was invaluable here.

The first book of the Meditations stands out from the others. While the other books present, often repetitiously, various Stoic maxims and ideals, the first book is more of a statement of gratitude to the people in Antoninus' life for the virtues they taught him. After reading this book, I immediately began to wonder what my own version of this book would look like. And I realized that my life has not brought me in contact with many people whom I could reasonably use as models of virtue. This was a depressing thought. However, I have learned a lot by using people as negative role models. Friends and relatives have shown me what not to do simply by making poor decisions and playing out the consequences before my eyes. This makes me wonder many people Antoninus describes were also negative role models for him. His tends to put an optimistic spin on everything and only concentrates on what he learned from each person, not usually how he learned it. It is entirely possible that some of these names belonged to terrible people, not virtuous ones. Charitably discussing negative role models is certainly the only way I could write a comparable chapter. But there is a lesson in that. The lives of the worst people you know can serve as cautionary tales. And while it is hard to appreciate such people, it is easy to appreciate the knowledge you gain from their failures. In a sense, these people have all taken a metaphorical bullet for me. I can be grateful for that. And no matter how limited this gratitude may be, it has diminished the bitterness that I held before. I can be grateful for that, too.

I have yet to resolve many of the other questions the Meditations left me with. For example, the Stoics believed that no man is truly evil, merely ignorant. The idea is that men only do bad things because they do not understand their own nature, the nature of the universe, Goodness, Justice, or some other fundamental idea. And it is the job of a true Stoic to try to correct such people, if possible. And if correction is not possible, a Stoic should simply accept that fact like all the other unchangeable things in the world. But if enough people started behaving in the Stoic fashion, the consequences for bad behavior would diminish. In other words, Stoicism in the face of evil men enables those same evil men. Of course, if everyone adopted Stoic virtues, this would not be a problem. But that seems like an impossible Utopian ideal to me. So Stoic acceptance would seem to be something of a selfish act. The Stoic seems to enable evil in exchange for his own inner calm. That said, Antoninus also discusses the importance of Justice. But he is fairly non-specific about what Justice looks like in application. Maybe the other Stoic authors can shed some light on this point. There has to be some dividing criteria between the man-made evil you accept and the man-made evil you actively retaliate against for the benefit of society as a whole.

The Stoics also adhere to an eternal bugbear of mine. As Shakespeare describe the concept, "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." I suspect that I have addressed this elsewhere in my posts. But this thinking fundamentally denies the existence of an objective reality. Furthermore, no amount of imagining a knife in the heart to be good will keep it from killing you. However, it is possible that Stoics did not accept this idea as literally true. Instead, it could simply be a mental trick to help acceptance and subjugation of the animal self to the rational self. Similarly, the Stoics talk about breaking things down into their basic components until they become unappealing. For example, to fight the desire for wine, a Stoic would think of it as merely grape juice gone bad. "Rotten grape juice" is not nearly as appealing as "wine", but they describe essentially the same thing. This is self-delusion. And to use another Shakespeare quote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In other words, "rotten grape juice" can still get you drunk or encourage conviviality. The Stoics essentially take Aesop's fox and his sour grapes as a role model. This is clearly irrational. But to be charitable and channel my inner Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the seemingly "irrational" can sometimes become rational if it is sufficiently useful. This line of thinking, in moderation, can be medicinal; in excess, it can be narcotic.

The list of ideas in the Meditations that I am still struggling with is fairly long. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to address them all here. However, another Stoic author is on the reading list, Epictetus with his Discourses. This will give me an opportunity to revisit some of the same ideas down the road.