The Death of Marcus Aurelius

The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Ralph Waldo Emerson 2

The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, Obey thyself. 

—from Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity College Address 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Sayings of Ramakrishna 223

When I look upon chaste women of respectable families, I see in them the Mother Divine arrayed in the garb of a chaste lady; and again, when I look upon the public women of the city, sitting in their open verandas, arrayed in the garb of immorality and shamelessness, I see in them also the Mother Divine, sporting in a different way. 

Seneca, Moral Letters 56.2

So you say: "What iron nerves or deadened ears, you must have, if your mind can hold out amid so many noises, so various and so discordant, when our friend Chrysippus is brought to his death by the continual good-morrows that greet him!" 
But I assure you that this racket means no more to me than the sound of waves or falling water; although you will remind me that a certain tribe once moved their city merely because they could not endure the din of a Nile cataract. Words seem to distract me more than noises; for words demand attention, but noises merely fill the ears and beat upon them. 
Among the sounds that din round me without distracting, I include passing carriages, a machinist in the same block, a saw-sharpener nearby, or some fellow who is demonstrating with little pipes and flutes at the Trickling Fountain, shouting rather than singing. 
Furthermore, an intermittent noise upsets me more than a steady one. But by this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. 
For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. 
For of what benefit is a quiet neighborhood, if our emotions are in an uproar? 

—from Seneca, Moral Letters 56 
Here is where Seneca and I diverge in our pet peeves, and I do understand how that has everything to do with our habitual attitudes. I am sure he is at least one step ahead of me, because any sounds themselves will still bother me, and he is able to at least limit himself to the meaning of the words he hears. One step at a time, one day at a time! 
I do know what Seneca means about sudden or unexpected noises, for as I get older, I find that I am far more easily startled, and I notice that the more anxious I already am on the inside, the more a distraction on the outside will rattle me. 
This insight is really the key to the whole problem, because while I may think that the sound itself is bringing me grief, the true source of my distress is in my own reaction. 
The difficulty then becomes whether my attempts to overcome the frustration will only increase my discomfort. We all know how saying we won’t think about something can sometimes make us think of it all the more. Instead of banging my head against the obstacle, I will need to find a way to work around it. 
I find that the sort of “toughening up” Seneca speaks of can’t be acquired by brute force of will alone, which is true of so many challenged we face in life. For me, it is only the subtlety of understanding, the more refined the better, that provides me with the strength to overcome my circumstances. 
The mental equivalent of taking a deep breath is the start, and the transformation will then come gradually. 
Indeed, just putting myself in a calm environment will be useless without first forming the peace of a calm mind. The situation doesn’t make me, but I make the situation. It becomes smooth and polished with a gentle touch. 

—Reflection written in 5/2013 

IMAGE: Jean-Francois Millet, Woman and Child (Silence) (1855) 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Stoic Snippets 214

You can remove out of the way many useless things among those which disturb you, for they lie entirely in your opinion; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole Universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution! 

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32 

IMAGE: Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (1889) 

Ellis Walker, Epictetus in Poetical Paraphrase 44


If with civility you can, decline
All public feasts, and learn at home to dine
With sober food, at your own charge content;
But if oblig'd, in point of compliment,
To eat abroad, be it your care to shun
The vulgar dregs of conversation:
As common vile discourse, and dirty jests,
The nauseous merriment of greasy feasts:
For if your company be lewd, you may
Soon grow as dissolute and lewd as they;
For there's contagion in each word they speak,
Each smile they make, each jest they break;
Their very breath envenoms all the chear,
As if the Harpye-sisters had been there.
Thus hurtful vapours, rising from the ground,
Poison whate'er they meet, leave nothing found.
Thus a blear'd weeping eye is apt to make
The' infected eyes of the beholders ake.
Thus sheep diseas'd, pall'd wine, corrupted fruit,
If mix'd, the healthful, sprightly, found, pollute. 

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Dhammapada 344

He who having got rid of the forest of lust gives himself over to forest-life, and who, when removed from the forest, runs to the forest, look at that man! Though free, he runs into bondage. 

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress 3

Whenever I look at this picture, I immediately think of my time at college. Now you may assume this means I was a partying frat boy, but that was hardly the case. While I do enjoy wine, women, and song very much, and sometimes too much, my years of so-called higher education, which they tell me were supposed to be my best years, were sadly filled with disappointment and despair. 

What was claimed to be one of the top 50 universities in the country was ultimately little more than a place for rich kids to fall down drunk and hook up with strangers. I'm afraid that's not my idea of a good life. 

The students were certainly bright, and yet most of them only saw their studies as a necessary chore to later win fancy jobs. My peers showed up to class, if they actually bothered to show up at all, in sweatpants they had probably slept in, and stinking of stale beer. There was usually much whispering around me during a lecture,  inevitably about who had "bagged" whom the night before. 

Do not think me a prude, though I do believe that sex is meant to be joined with love, and a fine bottle of whiskey is meant to cement genuine friendships. Love and friendship were, unfortunately, a rare commodity on my campus. So I was a lonely soul, because what I craved in life was nowhere to be found. 

What happens to a fellow when you give him the luxury of wealth, without first making sure he has taken the time to build up his character? You end up with a Tom Rakewell. You end up with thousands upon thousands of lost souls, hardly men at all but stunted boys, who will put on tailored suits during the day and cheat on their trophy wives at night. 

So you will please forgive me when I look at this picture and don't just see a raucous party. I see Tom well on his way to losing everything, by which I don't just mean his inheritance. He is throwing away his very human dignity. It is the saddest thing to watch happening to any person. 

Observe how the prostitutes, covered in syphilitic sores, are stealing Tom's watch. His unsheathed sword gives a clear indication of where his drunken night is going. Though you can really only see it in the the engraved version, there are portraits of Roman emperors lining the walls, and all have been defaced, expect for Nero. How tragically fitting! The portrait of Pontac, also still intact, refers to a trendy restaurant of the time. 

One of the prostitutes is burning a world map with a candle, with all the symbolism that entails. By Tom's feet you will note a lantern and a staff, stolen from a night watchman during the evening's escapades. This reminds me of how a popular college pastime involved stealing street signs after drinking binges, which were then proudly displayed in dorm rooms. 

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress III: The Orgy (1734) 

Seneca, Moral Letters 56.1

Letter 56: On quiet and study 
Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! 
When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. 
Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.
Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. 
Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice—for purposes of advertisement—continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation. 

—from Seneca, Moral Letters 56 
I grew up in a family that valued its peace and quiet, and to this day I find relief in a calm environment, for it seems to assist me in calming myself. 
I suppose being an only child made it far easier for me to rest in silence, but even when a throng of extended family gathered together, I don’t recall there ever being a raucous uproar. There would be the sounds of celebration, of course, and yet it never devolved into mere noise. The distinction came to me when I reflected on whether sounds were thoughtful or thoughtless. 
So, when I eventually met a nice girl from Texas, who came packaged with a herd of siblings and countless dogs running about, it took me some time to grow accustomed to more hectic surroundings. The important lesson I had to learn was that my own serenity depended on my state of mind, not on what happened to be going on around me. 
The question then becomes where I should be seeking out the stillness I crave. As much as they may frustrate me, the banging, clanging, yelling, or hollering that take place in my world shouldn’t be driving me insane. If I can’t easily move out of earshot, I need to work on my own powers of focus and concentration. 
I read the opening lines of this letter with a combination of laughter and commiseration; I believe I know exactly how Seneca felt. I suspect the quirks of our individual personalities have much to do with our immediate responses, and those of us who are more introverted may have greater difficulty with managing a commotion than those of us who are more extroverted. While my wife revels in a clatter, I am inclined to grind my teeth. 
Though I have yet to run into a hair-plucker in the neighborhood, Seneca’s list shows me how the little annoyances of life haven’t changed that much. The slightest itch can be more distracting than the most agonizing ache. 
I have my own peculiar irritations. Worse than the barking of a dog is its incessant panting. My heart races when a car stereo is so loud that the vibrations of the bass rattle my bones. While I have little difficulty with conversations going on the background, I cannot bear the sort of fellow who bellows so loudly that the whole neighborhood knows exactly what is on his mind. Most vexing of all is a room full of people slurping their coffee in the morning. 
One thing I so love about the Stoics is how they never fail to be in touch with our everyday problems. 

—Reflection written in 5/2013 

Friday, September 22, 2023

Old Man Jack

In honor of Jack (2005-2023), as fine a companion as any hound, and a far better one than most men . . . 

You not only did good, sir, you were the best of your kind. You are relieved of duty. 

"Jeoffry", from Jubilate Agno (1763) 

Christopher Smart 

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually—Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023