I don’t know about you, but for me those past few years have been increasingly interesting times. I often find it hard to look at the world and not despair. When talking about this in greater detail with a good friend, she mentioned stoicism as one of many strategies we can try to employ for dealing with… *wildly gestures at everything*. I was aware of the basic idea, but had been meaning to check it out more in-depth.
With that in mind, my choice of the “A New Translation” version (by Gregory Hays) of the Meditations was a good pick: More than a quarter of the book is an introduction that lays out some concepts of stoicism. That helped make the Meditations themselves more understandable, but also provided insight I’d otherwise not have gotten.
The thing that surprised me most was how… esoteric, for lack of a better word, the whole thing seems to be. The interconnectedness of all matter in the universe, and the inclusion of human souls in that, is something that a lot of “enlightened” people today would wrinkle their nose at. It reminded me a little of George Lucas’ greatest sin, the Midi-Chlorians. It does resonate with me, though, so this was a pleasant surprise.
What I didn’t expect was the perspective on “free will” – what I got from this very brief introduction was that Stoics don’t really consider it a thing? I’m sure it’s more nuanced, but this was both the thing I disagreed most strongly with (both in the abstract introduction and when I recognized hints of it in the Meditations themselves), and the thing I found hardest to bring into internal reconciliation. If everything is governed by fate, how can anything be good or bad? Yet much of the book speaks about people being good or bad.
On the Meditations themselves: Even with their genesis being well explained in the introduction I was still surprised by how random they were.
Finally, a more meta point: I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction. It was a bit of drag to finish this, and I was glad when I was done shortly before the 90% mark (because the rest was an index). This is a me thing, not an indictment of this book or non-fiction in general. It doesn’t work well for how and when I read: Almost exclusively in bed before I sleep. I’m tired and exhausted at that point, and I want to shut up my brain so I’ll be able to sleep. Non-fiction usually gets my brain going instead (of course plenty of fiction does so too). With fiction it’s not too big a deal if I read “sloppily”: I’ll remember the broad strokes. With non-fiction I feel like I have to pay much closer attention, get every sentence and every word, because how else would I get the amazing value and lessons from it? That stresses me out, and doesn’t make for a very enjoyable experience.
Quotes I highlighted while reading:
People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within.
Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.
So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough to ward off all <…> and send you back ready to face what awaits you.
I don’t remember why it stood out to me. Maybe because I feel like I’m already doing this? Escaping to the country, to the beach, to the mountains has never appealed to me, I do indeed escape to myself instead.
But take into consideration:
- that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;
That is something I strongly believe in as well.
Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned—to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.
While I agree with this, I still struggle with it a lot. The older I get the more I’m able to do this, and I keep re-learning how true it is.
In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.
That seems like something the world has mostly forgotten.
- this evil is not of my doing,
- nor the result of it,
- and the community is not endangered, why should it bother me?
Is it even evil if the community is not endangered?
It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal—if he’s living a normal human life.
And if it’s normal, how can it be bad?
That reminded me of a conversation with my manager a while ago. In our regular 1:1 meeting we always do a quick check-in: Happiness and Stress rating from 1/10 for today. For at least a year I always entered values around 5 for stress. Sometimes 8 to 10 when stuff with my parents was flaring up, or other extraordinary things. Then someday I realized… we never spoke about how we view stress. To me, a 5/10 on that scale means: Everything alright, I’m busy in a good way. A 6/10 would still be fine. A little too busy, but nothing to worry about. And 4/10 would be fairly chill. I don’t even get to 1/10 on a vacation – it’s not how I view stress. But that’s a very individual thing, and other people might use 6/10 for “Oh shit, everything is burning, what do I do?!”
[…] nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite.
I’m sure your slaves felt everything was super fair and self-controlled, bro. And I thought here was no free will?!