“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Meditations is a book of stoic reflections. Written by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the book’s text is self-addressing, like a diary. Written for himself or his son, it reads as a to-do list of virtuous conduct. It is curious to me that Marcus, perhaps the most powerful man in the world at the time, chose to write a personal book of maxims insisting upon poise and calm in the face of the utter hardship of life. In reading the book I get a gloomy feeling, as if the author was deeply disturbed by something but couldn’t quite articulate what. Out of all topics, why did the emperor write this book, and not something else? A little context may help us understand.
Marcus was writing at a time when the Roman empire had perhaps just turned from the peak of its power. This was probably not too visible in the day to day of citizen’s lives. There were concerns: a multi-year plague ravaged the empire, killing millions, an empty imperial treasury was nothing to shrug off, and while Pax Romana is considered to have ended with Marcus Aurelius’ death, Rome was at war almost every year of his reign. But for the Roman citizens there was no reason to think these were anything but temporary setbacks for the empire, whose citizens lived in what must have felt like the center of the stable world. Of course Rome would endure. How could it not?
The emperor’s own view might have been different. Rome’s borders were no longer expanding: The wars Marcus engaged in were not for glory or conquest, they were struggles to keep the empire together. Revolt and foreign tribes threatened the loss of territory on all sides. The plague turned out to be an empire-wide disaster, destroying as much as 30% of the population in some areas. Marcus mentions this plague in Meditations, but only as a foil, to insist that the plague in the air around them was not nearly as destructive as the plagues of falsehood, luxury, and pride.
Marcus personally joined his armies in the fight against Germanic tribes in the north, it was during this time that he wrote Meditations. The campaign was never finished — Far from Rome, in a military camp, the emperor himself eventually succumbed to the plague.
Stoicism has found renewed interest in technology circles especially. I don’t want to bore you with examples, so please indulge a summary. Sentiments are expressed like this:
Problem: The modern world contains abundant food, screens, advertisements practically weaponized to influence you, endless games and drugs.
Solution: To combat these inhuman forces you must summon inhuman willpower: Master fasting, meditation, discipline, etc.
This response is not very new and not limited to Silicon Valley types. Another popular source of stoic thought is the widely-shared commencement speech by David Foster Wallace from 2004, titled This Is Water. It does not advocate stoicism by name, yet much of it takes a form found in Marcus’ and Seneca’s writings:
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. […] But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
David Foster Wallace’s final and unfinished novel The Pale King repeats similar themes. He constructs a world of crushing boredom (IRS tax reviewers), and imagines the way out as a sort of transcendence of state, with the power necessary to do so coming from within.
The Problems with Stoicism
I suspect this kind of stoicism — for Marcus and Wallace and some modern popularizers — is a response to perceiving the breakdown of a functioning world. Their prescription for dealing with such troubles is to develop profound internal strength, and in doing so the stoic attitude can dodge some societal-level failures by compartmentalizing toward a robust individualism. While this is good in situations where you truly can’t change anything, where it fails is more subtle. By couching success as something that happens entirely within the ego, it encourages one to downplay anything external. If a stoic attitude is applied too liberally, the insistence that success only lies within becomes an unconscious dodge of difficult forces and responsibilities beyond one’s complete control.
A world with failing institutions may be survivable by the strong-willed, but a better world will always be one where they exist. If our surroundings are miserable, perhaps we’re better off acknowledging our malcontents. We should express our distress, and try to work together to change that environment, instead of reorganizing our inner feelings until we decide that the current (less optimal) world cannot bother us. In a way this is a harder task than stoicism: It demands cooperation with others, which demands cultivating much more than just willpower. Great empires, communities, and societies are not solo undertakings, they cannot be achieved by inner work. They require the attention of strong persons who refuse to discount the external world.
Too strong a stoicism, like any individualist philosophy, scales poorly. A philosophy emphasizing only this inner work, though it may personally work well, gives no guidance as soon as you have enough responsibility to participate in society. What worked well for Marcus was entirely inadequate to save the empire. If you want to build something that lasts, instead of devising a guide for the ultimate ruler, it may be more fruitful to devise strong enough institutions to outlive the occasional weak ruler, which will happen sooner or later. (In the case of Marcus, his own son).
We should encourage ourselves to ponder problems beyond the scope of one person. We should be thinking, “what good things do we lack, what does our society lack, and how can we build those things?” To even ask these is to admit that some things about our world do distress us. So I disagree with Marcus (“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it”). I think earnest distress is often worthwhile — shrugging off the misfortunes of the world, in aggregate, ensures a poorer world. This is true in Marcus’ own case: He had no way to sound the alarm, and no way to corral his (muttonheaded) son. No way to reverse the breakdown of institutions or to signal their importance. Instead he had faith in the importance of the perfected self, which did not scale.
Grandfather to Nihilism
“The wise man is joyful, happy and calm, unshaken, he lives on a plane with the gods.”
“Any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty.”
― Ishmael, Moby Dick
Consider again Wallace’s words:
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred…
Wallace’s speech is very popular, but taken seriously I find it astonishingly unappealing. Is what he’s describing really the interiority we want to build for ourselves? For Wallace there is nothing “given” in the sacred, it is something that can be entirely imposed, even upon consumer hell. I think this is a strange way to think about the ideal world. In this (to me, absurd) framing of the sacred, I find another issue broadly across much of stoicism: it is a strictly defensive philosophy. Stoicism is always found guiding on how to endure. It does less to guide one on how to live well.
Stoics do not deny themselves pleasure per se, but by denying importance to things outside of their control, they make it easy to inadvertently do so. If you are not open to pondering the moods of the world, or of the seasons of your own life, because you are intent on letting nothing affect you, I think you are closing off much of what can be found to inspire wonder, or what is to be sacred in the world. This is not an easy argument to make to a stoic, because if they do not believe it, it cannot be seen, but from the outside that’s the very problem. Such a philosophy prevents wonder.
Part of life is imposing your will upon the world and your experiences, but another part is having those experiences. By asking us to pay no attention to the world outside of our control, stoicism is something of a philosophical grandfather to nihilism. I think we should reject this framing. We are not ideally atoms, inhabiting a nowhere, but creatures inhabiting a world of mystery, and natural forces greater than us. I think the proper response to such a world is to approach it with the cautious gratitude that gave us the gods, and other objects and forces of reverence and ritual.
Our emotions and intuitions are not something to be set aside, but are some of the best tools we have in determining what to work on in this world, how to live, and how to aim towards a better sense of belonging. Learning to tame your emotions through willpower is helpful, but your emotions themselves are your asset, they are a tool to be cultivated, not shunted. You must discover where the moods of your being and the moods of the earth lead you, and through this you may find more fulfillment in life. There is wonder in the world beyond what our self-sufficient will alone can achieve, and we must do the more difficult task of living together and actually inhabiting the world, not ignoring it, in order to find this wonder. It seems unlikely that stoicism is the high mark of human flourishing because complete self-control precludes any number of complex feelings. Let us remember that sometimes, to weep is to experience the truly beautiful. While it is not hard to think of stoic leaders or soldiers, this may be why it is somewhat harder to imagine many stoic artists!
Seek the Sacred
The stoics have serious advice to offer: Life can become terrible at any moment, you should equip yourself to be prepared for difficult situations. Almost everyone could use more personal responsibility and personal strength. But stoicism is not a sufficient philosophy for a good life, only a survivable one. We must remember what that responsibility and strength are ultimately for. It lies beyond ourselves.
I think our relation to the world should be quite different than what the stoics suggest. I cannot accurately condense it here, but I will try to gesture towards it: Your emotions, your moods, and the moods of the world are the sacred underwriting of your life. Instead of developing nerves of steel, we will flourish more when we learn to lure back our sense of wonder in the world, our environments, and each other. But this means we must afford those things their own respect: enough to admit they are bad when they are bad, and to honor what we find beautiful. We must refuse to desecrate our world out of convenience or carelessness, and we must build better environments for each other.
We should concern ourselves less with individuality, which in modern times takes on cultish proportions, and in aggregate leads to boring, nihilistic living. To live well, we must create things outside ourselves, through ritual and poesy.
This is not an easy philosophy to prescribe. It does not have the advantage of being straightforward, there is no umbrella of specifics or rules. But it is the opposite of stoicism: A philosophy of noticing the world, and remaining open to it. The acknowledgement that ultimate goals lie beyond ourselves, in society and family, and in the worlds we choose to create and pass on. It is in this participation with the things beyond ourselves that we might learn to inhabit communities again. As we cultivate our environment, we will come to cultivate ourselves.