I Swear I'm Not Forgetting The Book Club (Book Club Meeting #1)
I definitely forgot the book club yesterday. I’m very sorry.
This week’s discussion revolves around Book 1 of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I’ll be dropping a big comment on my impressions a bit later today (maybe as late as tonight) but feel free to get the party started without me.
If you don’t want to be getting book club notifications, apologies and no worries: you shouldn’t get them past this point unless you take active steps to do so. If you do want them, then subsequent book club entries will be shoved into my little used “RC Interactive” subsection; subscribe to that and you should be gold.
It's painfully obvious that this was written for private reflection, and not with an audience in mind. One little gem stands out to me among the things he learned from Diognetus. In the words of the translation I'm using: "to endure free speech"
It certainly is something to be endured, sometimes!
I've been on a personal journey with stoicism. Some years ago, I experienced a crisis of the 'you need to change your personality if you don't want life to be hell' kind. In such situations, you never just get to choose to be different, of course, and it would be impossible for me to reconstruct all the routes I took to becoming a better person, but stoicism was an important resource for me in one way or another - especially the Meditations and also Seneca (though, I have to say, I always found something lacking in the modern revivalists like Pigliucci, who I read back when I was more interested in online rationalism).
These days, the picture is different. I want to be convinced by the modern virtue ethicists like Alasdair MacIntyre, and there is certainly much that I find compelling in their writings, but I feel that my admiration for stoicism has slipped. At the very least, it seems to occupy a quite awkward cultural position - somewhere between an ethics and a way of life. As a way of life, I find it commendable but difficult to recommend - I think it is (1) better suited to times of crisis (which could admittedly be all the time for some people) and (2) better suited to people who already have a disposition for it. It doesn't strike me as actually or desirably universal in application. As an ethics, I think it perhaps points towards good critical foundations for thinking about moral decision-making but there is so, so much that is left unspecified for the predicament we find ourselves in post-Nietzsche.
Anyway, I don't want to give a full retrospective - I'm interested to see where my thoughts will lead as I reread it. On Book 1, I would say on the one hand that it is both the least useful for someone approaching the work as a philosophical text and also the most instructive for actually learning something about practical ethics.
Why is it useless? Essentially because it is mostly not structured with any sort of logical argument. Marcus presents an array of honourable virtues that we are well-reminded to try to live up to - some vaguer than others (we can immediately grasp a "mild temper" but doesn't "integrity" need a treatise unto itself?) - but we are not bound to accept them by any force of reasoning. This is not a fault of the writing, of course, because it wasn't intended for our eyes this way. But if someone dives into this looking for a moral logic, it's not going to feel like the start is laying any serious groundwork.
Why is it instructive? Because it's much more interesting to regard what Marcus is doing than to pay much attention to the content of what he's saying. I can think of at least two reasons why. One is that his practice embodies a belief that ethical learning does not work by one becoming convinced of some set of propositions which, when held, will guide one to act naturally in the direction of flourishing, given certain basic wants and needs being met. Instead, there is always (except for the sage) a tension between the principles we would assent to upon self-reflection and the behaviours we in fact undertake in the course of our lives, so it's important to engage in some sort of routine of 're-centring' to make sure that reason and behaviour cohere.
I think it's vital to note that this tension is not always easily reduced to fluffy cases of limbic system vs. frontal cortex, immediate pleasure vs. deferred rewards. There are plenty of occasions where our moral behaviour goes astray because we simply don't recognize how we have become detached from our principles. Take, for example, his statement that one should be "readily recalled to conciliation with those who have taken or given offence". Laudable, for sure. But it puts me in mind of a twitter spat I saw this week in which a character who would ordinarily be in favour of progressive, rehabilitative justice was - when personally aggrieved - all out for petty retribution. In the circumstances, they marshalled superficially reasoned arguments to justify their demands but this person needed, somehow, to have a reckoning with themselves to realize that they had an inner conflict.
The second reason I think Book 1 is instructive is that it says something about the potential forms a re-centring might take, vis-a-vis 'write to yourself in a diary' or 'think about your role models'. The critical aspect of these, I think, is that they provide some sort of concrete praxis which goes beyond 'think about your moral opinions from time to time and subject them to rational critique' - though we'd like our minds to work this way, I think the reality is that this is a very weak means of securing moral balance (I'm also somewhat suspicious of the marriage that has been made between stoicism and meditation but that's another issue).
In my own case, I arranged quotations from the full text of the Meditations into a 5-minute or so recitation that I used to speak to myself twice per day. I think something of this nature is probably necessary for a lot of people to overcome a distaste for the Meditations in some ways saying, "Unhappy? That's your choice."