Long ago, I identified a cyclical pattern in my moods. Feelings of sadness and despair, which are attached to no particular set of external facts or circumstances, regularly overtake me after periods of contentment and relative happiness. I feel fine – even optimistic – and then the darkness encroaches, occasioned by no apparent, objective changes in the environment. This is all part of an ongoing, internal dispositional rotation where light fades to dark and then dark brightens to light. And round and round it goes.
The thoughts that accompany my dark periods are always the same: Everything comes to an end; everyone I know and love will eventually die; I will eventually die; so what’s the point? When in the midst of this feeling, distraction is ineffective. The mood itself stains everything that comes to my attention. It acts like a lens that colors and taints all things. I try to watch TV, and I think how I’m wasting what little time I have. I go for a run, and I think how there will be a time when I will be too old and frail to go running. I busy myself with cleaning the house and I think about how eventually the house will decay into nothingness. Distraction doesn’t work. The cycle needs to be ridden out. Despair demands its say.
The despair has returned this winter season, but this time around I’ve found new comfort in Marcus Aurelius. With his Meditations I’ve encountered a man who articulates many of the feelings and thoughts that drift round and round in my mind during dark spells. And it is not so much his stoic suggestions for how to deal with despair that appeal to me. Rather I’m comforted by the simple fact that this Roman emperor living in the 2nd Century AD – a man so different from me in most ways – shares my feelings and is unashamed of confessing to them. Reading Meditations makes me feel like I’m in the presence of someone I understand and who, if he was around today, would understand me.
Meditations opens with a litany of those to whom Aurelius feels gratitude: everyone from his grandfather to the gods. This first chapter chronicles the qualities of character and the lessons he learned from those he has encountered in life. From his grandfather he has learned “good morals” (I:1), from Sextus “good humor” (I:9), from his father “mildness of temper” (I:16). He thanks the gods for giving him “good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good” (I:17). In sum, he is grateful for the life he has been born into. He considers his world to be good overall.
Reading this list, I’m left with the impression that Aurelius is consciously and systematically going through a ritual that I also go through when I’m feeling low. Any ritual is intended to help us avoid forgetting, to help us remember that which we are in danger of overlooking. This being the case, rituals are premised on the concern that something has been neglected in life and that one needs to set aside time to recall what is really important. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, the ritual of listing all of the people to whom he owes gratitude seems to be an indication of simmering discontent. I suspect his eagerness to remember all that is good in the world is spurred by a desire to combat frustration with all of the evil that he is consciously preoccupied by.
I find myself carrying out the same exercise when I hit my dark, low points. When I worry that I’m being overly negative about life, or that I am being self-indulgent with my despairing feelings, I self consciously reflect on all of the things that I should be happy about. I have a good job that is secure and that I enjoy. I have a wife, a sister, family members and friends that I love. I have a home. I have philosophy. But all of this self-reflection is only necessary at points when the meaningfulness of these very same things has already been called into question. When there is no question of life’s worth, I simply love my wife, sister, family and friends. I live with purpose and enthusiasm, without question. It is only when doubt creeps in that I’m driven to engage in the ritual of listing all of the things for which I should be grateful. Engagement in this ritual is a sign that something is amiss and needs to be corrected.
In Chapter II of Meditations, we get our first indication of what it is that is troubling Aurelius. He is experiencing discontent with the tedious and seemingly meaningless distractions that divert him from what is really important in his life. There are those around him that are busybodies, those that are ungrateful and arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial and violent (II: 1;6). These sorts of people threaten to derail him and to entangle him in pettiness, inflaming his emotions to the point that he wastes time, energy and, indeed, his life fighting meaningless battles. “Do things external which happen to you distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around” (II:7). Like Nietzsche, Aurelius is here warning himself to avoid the poisoning effects of psychological resentment. When we become distracted by the shortcomings of others, we ourselves run the risk of becoming bitter and angry; and when this happens everything in the world around us becomes colored by our own bitter and angry perspective. The world starts to seem awful, not good at all. In this way we distort reality and create our own hell.
But, Aurelius reminds himself, we only have one life to live. “Since it is possible that you may be quitting life this very moment, govern every act and thought accordingly” (II:11). We are finite beings who are destined to die, and we don’t know exactly when we will expire. Do you want to live your short life in hell, or do you want to experience happiness? If you desire happiness, then you need to grab hold of your situation and live as if each and every act that you perform is your last, imbuing everything you do with meaning and purpose. Don’t waste time on superficialities or on pettiness. Focus on and embrace that which you think is really important. Be unconcerned with the shortcomings of others and strive to make yourself into the image of what you truly wish to be. This requires periods of reflection, for “he who does not observe the movements of his own mind must of necessity be unhappy” (II:8), but it also requires self-discipline and resolute action in the world. A good, happy life is a socially engaged, philosophical life.
Don’t waste your life. This is something I find myself repeating like a mantra at those times when the darkness encroaches and motivation wanes. “Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives” (II:14). It is a mistake to think that more life would change anything. Whether you lived 50 years or 3 million years, you would still be a finite creature who must do something – anything – while you are alive. Your finite life is what you make it, and it really is within your power to mold it according to your own ideals.
Chapter III reinforces the point that no matter how long we live, we are all destined to die and so we should make the most of the time we have. This is especially important, according to Aurelius, because it is a sad fact about humans that the older we get, the more likely it becomes that we will lose the full use of our rational, mental capacities. As we age, our minds tend to deteriorate first, before the body, and so it is uncertain that the “mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation” (III:1). As we lose our rational capacities, we lose the power to make willful choices and so we begin to drift in the direction of dependence on others. If our bodies outlast our minds, then we become objects, buffeted about by the willful actions of those around us. We lose the ability to mold the remainder of our existence and thus we forfeit that duty to others.
This thought terrifies me. After having seen some of my own family members drift into the clutches of dementia, I know how quickly self-sufficiency can disappear. My mother needed constant care until her body gave out. My aunt still lingers in an elder care facility, unable to articulate a coherent thought or to communicate her wishes to anyone. When they possessed their full mental capacities, neither my mother nor my aunt would have chosen this sort of conclusion to their lives, but neither of them, when in control of their mental faculties, put in place mechanisms that would have avoided what eventually came to be. Now I lie awake at night worrying about what will happen to me when my own mind starts to slip away. If it turns out that I am the last in my family to survive, what will happen? I fear becoming dependent upon strangers who are rarely kind, but often cruel. Now is the time to make the rational decisions that will allow life to come to an end in a way that can be embraced rather than feared.
The remaining chapters of Meditations (IV – XII) place individual human existence into a cosmic context that Aurelius suggests should give us comfort when contemplating our ultimate fate. Starting from the premise that “nothing comes out of nothing, just as nothing returns to nonexistence” (IV:4), Aurelius reasons that there is an eternal process of transmutation governing the universe of which human beings are a part. All things that come to be must emerge from some preexistent substance, and all things that decay and decline must melt back into that same substance. This process, since it is a part of nature itself, is just and good. It is only our irrational resistance to this process that makes it appear as if evil exists in nature. If we rationally embrace and passively submit to the eternal cycles of cosmic transmutation, then we will come to understand that, first, “nothing will happen to me which is not in harmony with the nature of the universe,” and second, “it is in my power never to act contrary to my god and divinity” (V:10). When we use our rational faculties to understand nature, we then can act in accordance with nature, accepting and embracing it as divine and good.
The universe is an organism, and we are parts of that organism. Our fate is tied to the whole, and so it is our duty to abide by our nature and play our role; just as our own hearts, stomachs and livers do in our bodies. The difference between our bodies and the universe as a whole, however, is that the universe is eternal but we are not. So, while “all parts of the universe are interwoven with one another,” it is also the case that “everything material soon disappears into the sum of being; and everything is soon taken back into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is soon overwhelmed in time” (VII:10). “Soon you will have forgotten all things; and soon all things will have forgotten you” (VII:21). For Aurelius, a rational person will understand this not as an occasion for despair, but as a liberating insight. Neither our individual lives nor our deaths are meaningless. They are integral aspects of the cosmos. Our lives and our deaths have a purpose in the grand scheme of things.
While I find Aurelius’ reflections in this part of the book fascinating and absorbing, I nonetheless am also skeptical. First, while his description of the eternal cycles of the universe might be true, I’m not completely convinced that it is. Second, even if his description is correct, it does not necessarily eradicate my own fear of death, but rather threatens to heighten it. After all, while saying that we are all organs in a cosmic body certainly does suggest we have a role to play, it also suggests that our own, individual hopes, fears and aspirations are worthless (and even destructive) apart from the aggregate. We could just as well say that we are cogs in a machine, highlighting our hopeless entanglement in a mechanical universe. But this is precisely one of the thoughts that goes round and round in my head during periods of mental despair. I am nothing but a cog, an ephemeral speck in the cosmic process. Hardly a comforting thought. Additionally, Aurelius’ metaphysics seems constructed precisely to alleviate his more concrete and down-to-earth experiences with mental suffering. But this raises a question: should we accept a doctrine just because it makes us feel better? It could be that the doctrine giving you the most comfort is also false, and I personally don’t want to accept false doctrines. I need some other evidence, argument or proof besides my own feeling of contentment. After all, there are plenty of religious systems that contradict Aurelius’ metaphysics that I could also believe in that would offer comfort. The point of philosophy is not just to alleviate despair. It needs to be motivated by a desire to know the truth.
Despite my skepticism about his metaphysics, the suggestions for life that Aurelius goes on to offer in the closing chapters of his book do resonate with me and do seem sensible. His central point is that you should “never mind what others think of you, and be content to live the rest of your life as nature wills” (VIII:1). This brings us back to the issue that was of concern at the start of his Mediations. Those “busybodies,” those “ungrateful,” “arrogant,” “deceitful,” “envious,” “unsocial” and “violent” people that often distract us from what we feel is good and right are to be ignored in favor of what our inner nature tells us to think and do. “Nature brings nothing that you cannot bear” (VII:46), and so we need to listen to our own conscience when determining how to navigate the world. Aurelius reminds us (and himself) that it is only our judgements about the world that cause distress. The world is what it is. There is nothing inherently wrong with objective reality. It is only our desire for things to be different from the way that they are that causes us to feel as if the universe is evil and unjust. But our judgments are within our power to change, and so it follows that we are capable of finding contentment and happiness by changing the way we think and judge reality.
And there is ultimately nothing new under the sun, according to Aurelius. The same patterns play themselves out with differing details eternally. “Consider that the things of the present also existed in times past…all the same plays, only with different actors” (X:27). On the one hand, this is hopeful, since it opens up the chance for us actually to discover the patterns of nature and to bring our mental judgements into alignment with nature’s design. In fact, according to Aurelius, by the age of 40 we have already “seen everything” (XI:1), and so by that age one is able to formulate a basic template for happy living. On the other hand, the thought that our lives are just part of some cosmic repetition can also lead to a sense of despair. Nietzsche observed that the idea of the “eternal return of the same” is an example of nihilism, and as such it can lead us to feel as if everything is meaningless and worthless. During my own dark periods, this is precisely how I tend to feel. Life is a tedious recurrence of the same old boring patterns. If it all came to an end here, nothing would be lost. It reminds me of the Warner Brother’s cartoon in which one of the characters exclaims, “Now I’ve seen everything!” and then blows his brains out with a pistol. If there is nothing more to see or learn, what’s the point of moving on?
But I must admit that when I transpose Aurelius’ cosmic vision of eternal recurrence into a psychological framework, things become more positive for me. As mentioned earlier, I long ago identified a pattern in the ebb and flow of my moods that repeats over and over again. This eternally recurring psychological pattern does give me some comfort insofar as it helps to place my own despair into a larger context within which I can anticipate an escape from the darkness; albeit a temporary one. Since I have come to realize that despair is part of an ongoing rhythm in which my moods fluctuate from dark to light, when I am in the midst of despondency I become confident that the next cycle will bring cheerfulness. Ironically then, I am at my most optimistic when I am my most despairing, for it is then that I have something to which I look forward. When I am in my most cheerful of moods, on the other hand, I find myself slipping into the pessimistic anticipation of encroaching sadness. And round and round it goes.
Whether the patterns of recurrence are cosmic or psychological, I find the specific points of advice with which Marcus Aurelius concludes his Meditations to be wise, useful and sensible. There are ten things he suggests that we keep in mind when dealing with others and when we are striving to perfect our lives (XI:19):
- We are social creatures, “made for one another.”
- We should remember that all of those in our communities are under the same sorts of inner compulsions as we are.
- We should be pleased when those around us do good, but we should understand that when they do wrong it is out of ignorance.
- We should remember that we ourselves often do wrong.
- We should remember that sometimes we do not know whether the actions of others are right or wrong. In those cases we should suspend our moral judgments.
- We should remember that we are all finite and will die.
- We should remember that it is our own opinions about others that cause us distress, and we are in control of our opinions.
- We should consider how much distress is caused by being “angry and vexed.”
- We should recognize that a benevolent disposition is powerful and can bring inner peace.
- We should recognize that it is “madness” to expect bad men not to do evil; and that it is irrational to allow bad men to do wrong to one another while thinking that they will not do wrong to us as well.
I must admit that even in the midst of my darkest moods, this advice makes sense to me.
While I’m not prepared to convert to Stoicism after reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, I am soothed by the fact that another human being, living in another place and time, has had many of the same troubling feelings and thoughts as I have. Perhaps this is a verification of Aurelius’ point. There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps we are all playing our parts in an eternally recurring drama in which only the actors are different. Perhaps.