The Death of Marcus Aurelius

The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Friday, May 14, 2021

Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita 32

The Blessed Lord said:

1. To you, who does not carp, verily shall I now declare this, the most profound knowledge, united with realization, having known which, you shall be free from the evil of Samsâra (Rebirth).

2. Of sciences, the highest; of profundities, the deepest; of purifiers, the supreme, is this; realizable by direct perception, endowed with immense merit, very easy to perform, and of an imperishable nature.

3. Persons without Shraddhâ (Respect) for this Dharma, return, O scorcher of foes, without attaining Me, to the path of rebirth fraught with death.

4. All this world is pervaded by me in My unmanifested form: all beings exist in Me, but I do not dwell in them. 

5. Nor do beings exist in Me in reality, behold My Divine Yoga! Bringing forth and supporting the beings, My Self does not dwell in them. 

6. As the mighty wind, moving always everywhere, rests ever in the Akâsha (Aether), know you, that even so do all beings rest in Me.

7. At the end of a Kalpa (Aeon), O son of Kunti, all beings go back to My Prakriti (Primal Matter): at the beginning of another Kalpa, I send them forth again.

8. Animating My Prakriti, I project again and again this whole multitude of beings, helpless under the sway of Prakriti.

9. These acts do not bind Me, sitting as one neutral, unattached to them, O Dhananjaya.

10. By reason of My proximity, Prakriti produces all this, the moving and the unmoving; the world wheels round and round, O son of Kunti, because of this.

Bhagavad Gita, 9:1-10

Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.6

If I am of a great spirit, what concern have I in what may happen? What shall shake me or confound me or seem painful to me? 


Instead of using my faculty for the purpose for which I have received it, am I to mourn and lament at the events of fortune?


“Yes, but my mucus flows.”


Slave! What have you hands for then? Is it not to wipe your mucus away?


“Is it reasonable then that there should be mucus in the world?”


Well, how much better it is to wipe your mucus away than to complain! 


“I have caught a cold, and my nose is running. It is quite unpleasant. There is no God.”


As ridiculous as that may sound, the underlying attitude is quite prevalent. I see it around me every day, and I catch myself falling into it more often than I care to admit. It may sound more dramatic when the stakes are higher, but the thinking, whatever the degree, is still the same. 


Fortune has not done what I asked of her; clearly, she is not being fair. 


I was passed over for a promotion, so there can be no justice in the Universe. 


The love of my life will not even speak to me, so I have been deeply wronged by Nature.


I find myself in crippling pain from a disease I didn’t ask for, so Providence has obviously failed me. 


I never hurt a fly, and now they’re going to take me out in the prison yard and shoot me. To hell with God! 


It seems rather overwhelming, and yet taking the Stoic Turn will put all of that in its place. 


The mistaken assumption is that my good and my bad come from what happens to me. There is another way, to embrace the good and the bad in what I choose to do. 


And in making me as I am, a creature of reason and of will, is that not precisely what Providence intended? I get confused when I think that I am a creature made to receive pleasure, praise, or profit. 


“But I deserve it!”


Let me channel my deepest Epictetus in reply. I deserve nothing but what I make of myself, and who I am has absolutely nothing to do with any worldly spoils. I am the sum of what comes from me; to say that I am anything else is like saying that a popsicle is defined by a panda. 


Rich or poor? Irrelevant to character. Big or small? Meaningless to happiness. I only blame God when I haven’t managed my own soul. 


If my nose runs, God gave me a hand to wipe away the snot. If my neighbor thrashes me, God gave me the ability to meet his hatred with love. 


Providence has never wronged me; Providence gives me every chance to make it right. 

Written in 10/2000

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Wisdom from the Early Cynics, Antisthenes 8

He used to recommend the Athenians to vote that asses are horses. When they deemed this absurd, his reply was, "But yet generals are found among you who have had no training, but were merely elected."

"Many men praise you," said one. "Why, what wrong have I done?" was his rejoinder. 

When he turned the torn part of his cloak so that it came into view, Socrates no sooner saw this than he said, "I spy your love of fame peeping through your cloak."

Phanias, in his work on the Socratics, tells us how someone asked him what he must do to be good and noble, and he replied, "You must learn from those who know that the faults you have are to be avoided." 

When someone extolled luxury his reply was, "May the sons of your enemies live in luxury."

—Diogenes Laërtius, 6.8

Wisdom from the Early Stoics, Zeno of Citium 32

There are five excellences of speech—pure Greek, lucidity, conciseness, appropriateness, distinction. 

By good Greek is meant language faultless in point of grammar and free from careless vulgarity. 

Lucidity is a style which presents the thought in a way easily understood; conciseness a style that employs no more words than are necessary for setting forth the subject in hand; appropriateness lies in a style akin to the subject; distinction in the avoidance of colloquialism. 

Among vices of style barbarism is violation of the usage of Greeks of good standing; while there is solecism when the sentence has an incongruous construction.

—Diogenes Laërtius, 7.59

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Dhammapada 125

If a man offends a harmless, pure, and innocent person, the evil falls back upon that fool, like light dust thrown up against the wind.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.5

You travel to Olympia, that you may see the work of Phidias, and each of you thinks it a misfortune to die without visiting these sights, and will you have no desire to behold and to comprehend those things for which there is no need of travel, in the presence of which you stand here and now, each one of you? 


Will you not realize then who you are and to what end you are born and what that is which you have received the power to see?


“Yes, but there are unpleasant and hard things in life.”


Are there none such at Olympia? Are you not scorched with heat? Are you not cramped for room? Is not washing difficult? Are you not wet through when it is wet? Do you not get your fill of noise and clamor and other annoyances? 


Yet I fancy that when you set against all these hardships the magnificence of the spectacle, you bear them and put up with them. 


And have you not received faculties, which will enable you to bear all that happens to you? Have you not received greatness of spirit? Have you not received courage? Have you not received endurance? 


I very much appreciate the opportunity to see new places, to meet new people, to expand the horizons, as they say. At the same time, I am quite aware that getting caught up in diversions can be a dangerous thing, that putting on a fancy show is no substitute for the real work of being human, that running away to exotic locales won’t make up for the emptiness and the anxiety inside of me. 


The tourism industry is hardly a new invention, even if the fashionable destinations change from year to year. When I was younger, everyone was raving about the romance of Paris, but lately I notice folks telling me that going to Rome will bring about a profound spiritual transformation. 


My father’s generation of Bostonians usually fled to Cape Cod in the summer to avoid the drudgery of life, but I now hear about Maine as being the cure for the pains of the office. 


At the time of Epictetus, I can easily imagine the “better” class of Romans rushing off to all the spots that must be seen, surely hoping that they themselves would also be seen doing so. The statue of Zeus at Olympia, a work by of the esteemed Phidias, was one the “Seven Wonders of the World”, and it would probably have been high up on their list. Forty feet tall, covered in ivory, gold, and jewels, there may not have been any clicking of cameras, but there must have been much oohing and aahing. 


And as imposing as it may have been, would seeing it suddenly transform someone’s conscience, or directly imbue nobility into the soul? We too easily forget that the circumstances of time or place do not determine our attitudes, even as our attitudes will decide what we make of the circumstances of time or place. Our good or evil is from within us, not from how well traveled we might be. 


Why am I looking to something so far away, when everything I need to be happy is right here in front of me? If I already possess virtue, I will make no demands for any impressive views, and if I already lack virtue, there is no scene that has the power to improve me. 


If I am going abroad to escape from my troubles, I will find myself bitterly disappointed. My worries, fears, and weaknesses just tag along with me, and I am only replacing one set of frustrations with another. A new situation does not alter the fact that I allow myself to feel disappointment and resentment. 


I’m not sure how being jostled by hundreds of tourists at the Louvre is any different than being jostled by hundreds of commuters every morning on the subway. Life is as beautiful, or as ugly, as I permit it to be. A grinning dog can be just as uplifting as a grinning Mona Lisa. 


I am sorely mistaken if I think it worthwhile to put up with inconveniences for the sake of image, but not for the sake of character. 


By all means, let me enjoy the richest scenery whenever I can, while still always remembering that Providence pre-packaged my nature with all the necessary tools for constructing peace of mind. I will only complain that God has been unfair to me when I overlook my built-in capacities. 

Written in 10/2000

Monday, May 10, 2021

Fractals 12

Sayings of Ramakrishna 86

When water is poured into an empty vessel a bubbling noise ensues, but when the vessel is full no such noise is heard. 

Similarly, the man who has not found God is full of vain disputations. But when he has seen Him, all vanities disappear, and he silently enjoys the Bliss Divine.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.6.4

Therefore, that which by constitution is capable only of using things, is satisfied to use them anyhow; but that which by constitution is capable of understanding things as well as using them, will never attain its end, unless to use it adds method also. 


What is my conclusion? God makes one animal for eating, and another for service in farming, another to produce cheese, and others for different uses of a like nature, for which there is no need of understanding impressions and being able to distinguish them; but He brought man into the world to take cognizance of Himself and His works, and not only to take cognizance but also to interpret them. 


Therefore, it is beneath man's dignity to begin and to end where the irrational creatures do: he must rather begin where they do and end where Nature has ended in forming us; and Nature ends in contemplation and understanding, and a way of life in harmony with Nature. 


See to it then that you do not die without taking cognizance of these things.


In looking at the purpose and design of my own nature, I also learn more about Providence, the purpose and design that stands behind all of Nature. The workings of my intellect are expressions of the workings of Universal Intellect. 


Each type of creature is made to play a certain part, according to its particular identity. Where there is a body, it will be subject to certain physical laws of motion and change. Where there is life, it will participate in various degrees of growth, nutrition, and reproduction. Where there is awareness, there will be forms of sensation, memory, and desire. 


And where there is a certain deeper sort of awareness, that of a mind, there will be the activities of understanding and of will. As I wonder what sort of creature I might be, the fact that I am even posing the question already provides me with the answer. 


What I was made for is revealed in what I am, or more precisely in who I am, since it is the very character of a person to be conscious of both himself and his world. I may possess all sorts of other functions, yet these must be subject to my reason and choice, which is given a mastery over circumstances because it first has a mastery over itself. 


It is my essence to be a thinking creature, and not just a creature that walks or sits, wakes or sleeps, eats or drinks. Whatever else it is that I may do, it is the mind that guides the direction of use. Whatever else may come my way, it is my mind that discovers its value. 


Such a state of affairs, however, does not arise automatically; any act of consciousness must, by definition, be conscious. My understanding gives me no suggestions without being actively engaged, and it offers no principles without being deliberately practiced. 


Just as a strong and healthy body is acquired through habitual nurture and exercise, so a strong and healthy mind is perfected through constant learning and reflection. There is no quick-fix solution, no instant formula. 


As I look over my day, can I now honestly say that I have been first attending to the quality of my understanding? Or am I just blindly using, without providing any meaning and method? I am sad to say that there is often very much doing, but far too little interpreting. That’s fine for an animal, but not for a man. 


I am prone to offering cheap excuses. “Sometimes I just need to stop thinking, and get the job done!” 


By all means, let me avoid irrelevant abstractions and pointless worries; such diversions are hardly rational. At the same time, let me remember that there can never be any practical benefit in life without the application of sober prudence. The job won’t get done in the absence of some sound thinking, because I won’t know what the job is to begin with. 


If I don’t know why it is true and good, then I shouldn’t be doing it. When I only think about how I can make more noise or find new ways to gratify myself, I am not really doing much thinking. 

Written in 10/2000

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Last Words of Cleanthes

"The Last Words of Cleanthes"

Richard Henry Horne (1802-1884)

'Here do I take my seat, Great Element!
And for the last time listen to thy voice,
Which now methinks hath a more lulling tone,
E'en as of sympathy: but that's a dream.

'Many great spirits dwell in other worlds,
And some are here, who live, like me, alone,
But with a recognized influence of good,
Rewarded by self-consciousness of power,
Which is the Stoic's well-sufficing law;
It is his law unto himself, comprising
All kinds of labour; water, food, and space 
Of ground sufficient where to rest the head,
Being his right in common with the herds,
And all dumb fellow-creatures of the earth.

'Zeno is gone; and I have taught his School,
With pride I yet may pardon in myself,
Knowing how much of his great soul, outpoured
For all throughout my being was transfused.
Zeno hath passed to higher learning now,
And thence to higher teachings will attain,
Proportion'd to his spirit towering still;
While I have linger'd here, and day and night
Striven to be worthy of his great bequest.'

The sage was seated on a lone sea-coast,
And while the sun slow sank 'midst solemn smiles,
As of paternal sadness, touch'd with hope,
The sea came flowing up, still murmuring
Its ever-fresh yet ancient harmonies.
Near him there stands a Thracian youth, whose head
And limbs elastic had enchain'd the gaze,
But for the anxious chisellings o'er his face,
As he beholds a man of massive brow,
O'ersnow'd by four score years, who like a rock
Placed on a rock, sits there, self-doom'd to die.

'Young man, thou pray'st me to recount my life—
New comer from the Thracian Chersonese,
Not knowing of my labours, or my thoughts,
Nor why I sit here with intent to end 
A long life, every day whereof hath wrought
The utmost work my faculties could achieve;
Here, where the bright waves hasten tow'rds my feet,
Not like fierce rows of fangs, but gracious friends
Who bring to me my flowing funeral rites,
Murmuring their deep hymns to eternity.

'I was a rough-bred and unletter'd man,
Born to great strength of sinew and of bone,
With that endurance which outlives defeat;
And as a cestus-bearing athlete fought,
Gaining some batter'd victories, with the applause
Of brutal natures, and of spirits refined,
Needing reaction after mental toil.
With heavy ox-thonged cestus, newly stained
From smashing contest, craving rest and shade,
The grove I pass'd where Zeno held his School.
The vision of that grand head floats before me,
As then it loom'd above the shoulders bare,
And grape-like curls of many a lovely youth
Whose soaring spirit stood with folded wings.

'The hush'd reposethe shadows,and the rhythm
Of Zeno's eloquent cadences—a flow
Of harmony as of the confluence sweet 
When Simoïs and Xanthus murmur'd through
Some temple in the groves of vanish'd Troy,
Melted my nerves, and overcame my heart,
Till a new life-spring gushed into my brain,
Flooding my thoughts, and forcing o'er each sense
A change, which all my bodily strength transformed.
More than a child's within a giant's grasp,
Or clay beneath the statuary's hand,
Softly I laid me listening on the grass,—
And year by year, ne'er absent, day by day,
Save for deep study in my lone abode,
As one of Zeno's flock I fed and thought.

'Now while the days roll'd o'er my bowed-down head,
My corporal needs—how few—were well supplied
By labours of the night, wherein my strength 
Served well my higher craving; and for hinds
On gardens, farms, or cattle far a-field,
Water I drew from wells, or when the springs
Sparkled in frosty silver 'neath the moon.

'Thus through my mind were melted twenty years,
And Zeno left us—on life's pilgrimage
Tow'rds higher knowledge,—and his Chair devolved
On me, though others to that lofty seat
Held worthier claim. As Polygnotus' hand
In paintings illustrated godlike forms,
And acts of heroes, so did I but teach,
With humbler, but not less devoted powers,
What godlike minds had imaged. Let that pass
From me, the medium of those truths sublime,
To rest as crowns for their diviner brows.

'And yet, young man, I have not lived in vain
In mine own person, since examples weighty 
Rank with best teachings. Now, brief words paint years:—
The tide rolls inward, and thou must depart,
And leave me here to close my mortal hour.
Through a long life I have thoroughly wrought my will,
From nature's hand refusing all rich fruits,
As from my labours, or man's kindliness,
Receiving but the means for innocent food,
Thus following Crates' and great Zeno's course,
As rigidly as link doth follow link,
When seamen raise an anchor to the prow;
Or as the shadow of the hero's spear
Beneath its singing, flies to the same mark.
To man's best knowledge, and highest good
Myself have I devoted evermore,
With no weak murmurings o'er the poverty 
Which was my choice. And if my chief return
From man were scoffs, cold pity, or neglect,
As I for social life were all unfit—
No business had on earth—let man progress
The better for my life; I, none the worse 
For his contempt, but more content and glad
In that my labours have been more removed 
From personal profit. My pure 'vantage rests
On its negation and its nullity,
Which is the Stoic's true—his best reward,
Save in the satisfaction of his soul.
It may be that some balance here is lost,
Since Nature bids each seek his proper good.
Every devotion hath inspiring madness—
Oft madness of the loftiest, purest scope;
But 'tis poor earthliness large gains to crave,
Thanks, and prompt recognition from the world
Of service and self-sacrifice. Enough—
Man knows his own acts, his own secret mind,—
Evades, or all the mingled truths confronts.

'Leave me, young man; the tide is rising fast!
Good youth, retire—'tis now my will to die.
Studies and hardships on extreme age piling 
Weight upon weight, life's arches are borne down;
And as nought useless can, or should exist,
I have for days, all sustenance refused,
Press'd to my hands, but thankfully laid down,
And now sit here, beside my sand-scoop'd grave, 
Waiting majestic burial from the sea.

'Nor are tombs wanting. Lo, yon marble rocks!—
The architecture of some hand Divine!
Intaglios fretted by a thousand years—
Inscriptions motto'd by the unseen Powers
That guide earth's great mutations, while around me
The symbols both of present and of past—
Enormous sea-weeds, strombites, and whitening bones,
Submarine flowers that lift their welcoming heads,
And wail of starv'd birds echoing to the moon,
Now slowly rising from her daily grave,
Profusely furnish funeral honours due
To those whose life-lamps burnt in caves, like mine.
Young man! forbear thy touch!—thy tearful voice—
Begone at once! behold the waves flow near,
And soon will kiss these pale and paralyzed feet.
The crescent points creep round with gushing gleams,
And now they eddying meet, and deepening flow!

'Covering his face, with smother'd sobs he goes—
Farewell!—nay, boy!—he weeps, but he is gone.
Ever-young World! I have well loved thy youth,
And thought for me thou hadst no heart at all;
But 'twas not so. I ne'er had sought to gain
That sympathy which yet, like unplucked fruit,
Is ready for the worthy traveller's hand.
Absorb'd in work for man, men I forgot,
With all their cherished trivialities.
Wherefore they viewed me as a thing apart.

'O Zeus! I bless thee for the life thou gavest,
So full of bodily strength, and health, and years;
I bless thee for the mind that hath no fears
Of death, whereby our atoms thou still savest,
Till some fine consciousness again appears.

O Zeus! I have doubted further gifts of Gods—
Doubted futurity for each special mind;
The soul, like music, dying on the wind;
The body merging in earth's sands and sods;—
But to thy Ruling evermore resigned.

O Zeus! no claim have we to aught beyond!
We bless thee for the life we have enjoyed;
We hope our spirit shall not be destroyed:
Thy waters to my dying Hymn respond
In harmonies that change, ere rapture-cloyed.

O Zeus! I hear the broad waves gently flowing
Over my feet, and nestling round my knees!
My senses melt away by soft degrees!
My thoughts, like seeds, thy hand afar is sowing!
Sweet songs are in my brain—sweet birds in trees!

O Zeus! at all-devouring Time I smile;
For he is but Heaven's little playful son,
Toying, or teasing, while we graveward run:
Flow then, ye waves!—our mingling sands beguile!
Flow on, divine Maternity, flow on!'

Job and His Wife

Albrecht Dürer, Job and His Wife (1504)

Friday, May 7, 2021

Stoic Snippets 75

Let the part of your soul which leads and governs be undisturbed by the movements in the flesh, whether of pleasure or of pain; and let it not unite with them, but let it circumscribe itself and limit those affects to their parts. 

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.26

Sayings of Socrates 54

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metron, ran as follows: "This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death." 

The philosopher then, after Lysias had written a defence for him, read it through and said: "A fine speech, Lysias; it is not, however, suitable to me." For it was plainly more forensic than philosophical. 

Lysias said, "If it is a fine speech, how can it fail to suit you?" 

"Well," he replied, "would not fine raiment and fine shoes be just as unsuitable to me?"

Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 2.40-41

IMAGE: Lysias