Practical Stoicism
Practical Stoicism

Episode 12 · 8 months ago

We have the tools we need to avoid all permanent harm to our lives

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Something bad may happen to you, but you have all the tools you need to limit the ubiquity of the damage it does to you in the long-term. This week we're working through Meditation 11 from Book 2 of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. "You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. If the gods exist, then to abandon human beings is not frightening; the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, what would be the point of living in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us, and everything a person need to avoid real harm they have placed within him. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death, they would have made sure that the ability to avoid it was within you. If it doesn’t harm your character, how can it harm your life? Nature would not have overlooked such dangers through failing to recognize them, or because it saw them but was powerless to prevent or correct them. Nor would it ever, through inability or incompetence, make such a mistake as to let good and bad things happen indiscriminately to good and bad alike. But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these things happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble or shameful - and hence neither good or bad." Meditations: A New Translation (the book I read these meditations from) --> [link]

Welcome back to practical stoicism. Thanks for being here. I'd like to ask at the outset if you would please be so kind as to leave this podcast to review on Apple Podcast, spotify, podcast where, podchasercom, if you've gotten some value out of it and are continuing to enjoy it. These reviews don't help me rank or anything, but they do help first time discoverers of the podcast decide to press play for the first time, and that is helpful in my overall mission to introduce practical stoicism to more people. Also, thanks to you tuning in each week, this podcast is now in the top thirty of the philosophy category in Apple podcasts in two countries, the UK and the US, and I'll admit that that is testing my stoic reservedness, because it's exciting and I'm proud of it and I'm trying to rain those emotions in. But it's pretty cool. It feels good and ultimately it feels good because I'm glad there's such an interest in this, because I feel that stoicism is something everybody needs at least a little bit of in their lives, and you're helping to make that more and more possible. So thanks again for tuning in and let's get into today's meditation, which is Meditation Number Eleven from Book Two of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If you are new to this podcast, it's best to start at the beginning. And if you're looking to purchase, whether you're new or not, the book that I'm reading from, there's a link in the description of each episode to the same version of the book I'm reading from on Amazon. And No, it's not an affiliate link. I don't get any money from it. It's just a regular link to Amazon. Meditation number eleven reads as follows. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. If the gods exist, then to abandon human beings is not frightening. The gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don't exist or don't care what happens to us, what would be the point of living in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us, and everything a person needs to avoid real harm they have placed within us. If there...

...were anything harmful on the other side of death, they would have made sure that the ability to avoid it was within you. If it doesn't harm your character, how can it harm your life? Nature would not have overlooked such dangers through failing to recognize them or because it saw them but was powerless to prevent or correct them. Nor would it ever, through inability or incompetence, make such a mistake as to let good and bad things happen indiscriminately to good and bad alike. But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these things happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful and hence neither good nor bad. I know that this one is going to be difficult for some of you to hear. It is difficult, in fact, for me to read, because I think I've mentioned before that I am an atheist and there are certainly some portions of a few STOIC tacks, if not all STOIC tacts, and this is especially true of epictetus and is in Cariteon which will likely progress to when we're done with Marcus, unless I decide that Seneca is a better path that epictetis. But either way there are certainly some portions of many stoic texts which I have to struggle through because of the God's talk. If that's you to rest easy. There's still a practical value here and I hope you'll continue along. I know it will be difficult for some of you and I empathize with that because it was difficult for me, but I promise you that there is still some practical value here. So let's not throw out the two thousand year old baby with the two thousand year old bath water. I'm going to take this one, as I usually do, sentence by sentence or section by section. This one's a little long, so this episode will be a little longer. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. We've heard this advice in modernity, right in our own time, though perhaps expressed a bit less bluntly and relying on the word regret more so than anything else, more so than death. I think you've probably heard some version of this right. When you're on your deathbed, you'll not...

...be thinking of all the things you did or mistakes you made so much as you'll be regretting all the things you were too afraid to do. All the things you missed out on. That's what Marcus is leading off with here, and we've heard it before from him. You're going to die and you don't know when. If that's true, which of course it is, then when you act or speak or think, you should be doing so with the limits of your mortality and mind. For example, you wouldn't want the last thing you said to your loved one to be spiteful, right, and if that's true, then perhaps don't speak spitefully in the first place to them, because they may die before you can make amends or you may die before you can make amends. If the gods exist, then to abandon human beings is not frightening. The gods would never subject you to harm, and I think this is where, for some of us the trouble will start, and I think that Marcus steps on his own feet a little bit here, and I also want to say remember that this is two thousand years ago. I think it's always important to have that context in mind. It's true that Marcus must simply because of the fact of where he lived. He's a Roman emperor, the time he lived, the life he lived, his upbringing. No doubt he certainly has some level of belief in the gods, but he has, in previous meditations, as we've seen, reduced them to something more like natural forces. So perhaps he believes Venus exists. I remember, these are Roman gods, not Greek one. I'm wheen to use those names, but she exists as the feeling and force of love and not as an actual woman who's like casting the spells that make people fall in love. Mars the God of war, might exist in the mind of Marcus, but he is not a man. He is the emotions of pride and bravery and patriotism that manifest in soldiers. It's clear that Marcus believes in the gods and in Providence, but he has again multiple times at this point along our journey through meditations, reduce them to nature, and I think that's where he trips up a little bit here, because nature is certainly guilty of occasionally subjecting us to harm. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt here and see where else this leads,...

...where he's going and what we might get out of it. And if they don't exist or don't care what happens to us, what would be the point of living in a world without God's or Providence. Now, if you're an atheist like I am, this one's can a ruffle your feathers. Right, your hair is going to stand on end, because the common atheist reprisal to this will be well, I want to live a good life, I want to enjoy the time that I'm here, and I get that. So don't think that I'm necessarily agreeing with what Marcus is saying here. Just stick with me. Okay, you guys, and I actually think that this part helps to make the practicality of what's being said in this meditation become more sensible. What Marcus is getting out here is that we shouldn't fear death, for what could be so awful about it that we should fear it? If there are no gods, then what a chaotic and purposeless world we live in, and who would want to live in a world like that? And if there are gods, then they are benevolent because they are logical and natural, according to most stoics, if not all, and would want nothing for us after death other than good things. I think from a practical standpoint, and especially if you don't believe in Gods of whatever sort, this is a hard line of thinking to get on board with. Most of us would say something like, regardless of believing in God's or not, I fear death because it means no more of the wonderful things that are part of life and of living. And, from a different vantage point, I fear death because it might take from me the most wonderful and important relationships I have now. For Atheists, although certainly that's not who marcus is talking to and I don't want to try to conflate that, but for atheists this is a call to that. reprise is all I mentioned. You only live once. Everything is temporary, and that is a huge motivation for we atheists to get as much as we can out of our lives, to enjoy it as much as possible. And if we're ethical, and we think being ethical is important, why we should spend our lives trying to make the world a better place before we leave, or make the lives of others better before we leave, because we have a limited amount of time to do that. We can't do it when we're in heaven because we don't believe in it. Now, if you're religious, of course, and there's no judgment going on here everybody, if you're religious, that's not how you're thinking. You're thinking probably is more in line with what Marcus is...

...thinking. Is here. Okay, yeah, this makes sense, but still there's some practicality here that I think everyone can use, and that is you're going to die and, whether or not there's an afterlife, you do have a limited amount of time here to do the things, whatever the things are, and to be the person you want to be. And just to reiterate here, the practicality of what's being discussed so far is you're going to die and that puts a premium on your time. It means that your frolic through the tulips of worldly pleasures and joy is limited, which makes it matter a lot more. So you should value your life while you have it and not take it for granted and using for our purposes the philosophy of Stoicism to ensure you're making the most of that life. Now, in regards to fearing death, whether you're religious or not, I mean there are plenty of people who fear death, who believe in an afterlife, and that fear may be rooted in whether or not they've been good and decent, because some faiths believe in hell, while others do not. For example, my understanding of the classic Jewish faith is that there's more like a purgatory, but there's no hell, whereas, let's say, your Baptist you believe very much so in a hell. And so a fear of death, even if you're religious, is something that people have. And even if you're atheist, you don't believe in hell, but you believe in the termination of experience, and that is a scary thing. It's okay, I think, for us, when first thinking about this, to be scared about those things, no matter who you are and no matter what you believe in or don't believe in. So then, in regards to fearing death, if you believe in God's if you're a religious person, Marcus's advice does not need any improvement here. Right, you're good, you've lived a good and purposeful life, so there's nothing to fear, and so long as that's true, then you religious types should be pretty in the clear here. You probably don't need to debate what Marcus is saying. If you don't believe in God's then death brings nothing but eternal rest and from a logical standpoint it's inevitable. It's not particularly logical or STOIC, whether you're a believer or whether you're not, to fear a long rest or for that matter,...

...that which is inevitable. Instead, you should recognize it, except it, make peace with it and live your life like it's true, but the gods do exist. They care what happens to us, and everything a person needs to avoid real harm they have placed within him. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death, they would have made sure that the ability to avoid it was within you. If it doesn't harm your character, how can it harm your life? Nature would not have overlooked such dangers through failing to recognize them or because it saw them but was powerless to prevent or correct them. Nor would it ever through inability or incompetence as to let good and bad things happen indiscriminately to the good and bad alike. And I think it's at this point, especially that last sentence, where we return to what Marcus is frequently wanting to convey to us, in fact it's probably been conveyed in nearly every meditation in this first book, that we as humans have all the necessary logical and disciplinary resources to avoid or absorb harm. In a helpful way. Now, if you're religious, that means praying and believing and abstaining and whatever the things are that are relevant to your faith. In particular, if you're an atheist, I think you can still get on board with this. For example, is there a famine? Is there a death? Have you lost a favorite thing? We're going back to our very first episode, broken your favorite Coffee Mug? There are ways to think about each of these stoically which, by doing, prevent us from being harmed by the harm they threaten us with. And it's important to realize here that, to Marcus, all harm exists in the mind. Have you lost a limb? The loss is real, the limb is gone, but the effect of the loss on your mind is where the real threat of ongoing, permanent harm exists. If externals cannot control your mind, as Marcus believes, then nothing can harm you, and I think that this is where we start to see perhaps the origin in western philosophy of the concept of mind over matter, or are pulling yourself...

...up by your bootstraps. This is where those phrases, I believe, ultimately derived from. This kind of thinking anyway, if not specifically stoicism. It is also, I think, not unrelated, though of course younger, to Zen Buddhism's concept of the obstacle is the path, or, to Greekify it, the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you most desire. And we close the meditation with this final line. But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these things happened to the good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful and hence neither good nor bad. This is, for me, the best part of this particular meditation. If it were me writing this meditation, it would have been reduced to just the first sentence, in the last one. You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you say and think. Death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty. All these things happened to the good and the bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful and hence neither good nor bad. That would have been the entire meditation for me, and the stuff in the middle would have been cut out. Of course, I have the benefit of living two thousand some odd years after Marcus so I can say that's what I would have written, but of course I probably would have written it like Marcus, if hyper Marcus. What Marcus is ultimately doing with this meditation, and the thing I think is the most important thing for all of us to take away, is he's reminding us that the gods are not targeting us with events of misfortune or fortune and that the fact fortune and misfortune happens indiscriminately to good and bad people is not at all a mistake. Instead, it is that way because good fortune or bad fortune isn't the thing that matters to our happiness or wholeness. What matters instead is our state of mind, which we all have the gifts to control, and the random mind field of good and bad things in our lives is designed intentionally to teach US exactly that. Now we use words like...

...designed or intentionally when we think there's a grand designer. So, if that's you, from Christian to Muslim to Mason, whatever it is you are, the Gods have designed a world full of indiscriminate, potential terrible things and they don't focus on you. They're not sending them to you. Instead, they're out there and the gods are trying to get you to think about your own life and the world around you and your ecclesiastic beliefs in such a way that you understand that it's not the things that happen to you that impact your character or your life after death. Instead, those things are tests, and I think among religious thinkers that's generally agreed upon. God tests us, but not specifically. He just has tests out there that we can walk into and we have to deal with and if we have enough faith, we can come through the other side. Now, to those of you like me, we're atheists. That can be extremely frustrating to hear people say, but there's a way that we can look at this to remove the personal nature of the Gods involved with nature. There are good and bad things out there. Good and bad things can happen to us and it is indiscriminate and with that in mind, instead of turning to our faith, which we don't have, we instead turn to our logic. When something bad happens to me, I'm in a terrible accident, I sustain a lifelong injury. That's one of those terrible, indiscriminate things that could happen to us in our lives. We can't control whether they do. We can't do anything once they've happened to us. But the future of our lives, not our afterlife, of course, because we're atheists, but the future of our lives depend on how we move forward with our lives. Do we allow that physical, external thing that happened to us to ruin the rest of our lives, or do we, as Marcus wants us to realize that, hey, we have the mental faculties, resources discipline necessary to, in spite of this, move forward with our lives in a meaningful way...

...and still make the absolute most of it and be happy with it, be content with it, become good men and women. Now here, I'm going to revisit the last episode. As I said, in the last episode, Marcus knew nothing of very real mental health conditions which require medical intervention, and I am in no way suggesting, believer or Nonbeliever, that you can think yourself out of and again I'm going to use myself as an example, Adhd in my case, I have a very high level of dopamine in my brain and while that sounds like it would make me happy all the time, it's counterintuitively the opposite. When dopamine binds to a receptor in my brain, or when any chemical binds to any receptor in any brain, it has a limited amount of time to do its thing on that receptor before it is released so that the next bit of that same chemical can come along and do its thing. The more, in my case, dopamine, you have, the less each bundle of dopamine is permitted to sit on that receptor and do its thing. So in some brains, let's say you have a receptor for dopamine and when dopamine touches that receptor it sits there for five minutes. That's completely made up, but let's imagine that's true. The time frame is made up and it spends five minutes delivering dopamine to your brain. But in my brain it doesn't spend five minutes there, it only spends a minute there, and so it can't deliver the full package of dopamine and this creates the effects of a dopamine deficiency, which is why doctors thought initially adhd was a dopamine deficiency problem. My brain actually has plenty of dopamine. It has too much, not too little. Now, while I could mentally overcome a missing limb. I can't mentally overcome a deficiency with the primary tool I used to mentally overcome things, my brain. So, keeping in mind that this podcast is called practical stoicism and not ancient stoicism or else, it is important that I make clear whenever possible that this philosophy has immense benefit to anyone who would choose to practice it. But there are portions of it, some of which we've heard today in this meditation, that are more than a little outdated, and that's okay.

We can't expect a philosophy constructed more than twozero years ago to have the benefit of modern knowledge. That's not fair. We also cannot pretend that modern knowledge has no value or impact. That would be highly detrimental, not to mention intellectually dishonest. As we continue through our exploration of Stoicism, I want you to keep this in mind. There is a wrong way to practice stoicism, that's true, but there's no absolutely correct way. Some people choose to adopt stoicism as the ancients did, and if that's your style, you will absolutely love Chris Fisher's podcast called stoicism on fire, but others seek to update this ancient philosophy a little bit. We don't want to take away from its core tenants, but we want to update it where it's necessary, where new knowledge can help us improve it. We feel stoicism has real value at its core and just needs a little bit of modernizing to bring it up to a modern scientific understanding. A lot of people don't like that. There are people who think that is the bastardization of the philosophy, and those people in some ways are right. It is true that to pretend as though things were true of stoicism two thousand years ago that weren't true, that is a bastardization, but so long as we're clear that we are modifying the original philosophy to update it, I don't think there's anything dishonest about doing that. Some people won't like it, but I think it happens to be necessary. It's also why I'm so careful whenever I have to talk about stoicism as it was versus stoicism how I think it should be with the benefit of all that new modern knowledge, because you can certainly be right or wrong about how stoicism was when it first came to pass, when it was first formed as a philosophy. There are real facts right. We can't pretend that it was something it wasn't. But when we talk about trying to pull the practical parts of it out so that we today, in our modern world, with our modern understanding of things, for better or for worse, we create something practical, accessible and rooted less in ideology and more in truth. And that's more so what I'm trying...

...to do here with practical stoicism. And if that's true thing, then I look forward to learning more with you in the next episode. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of practical stoicism. I appreciate you tuning in every weekend for another episode of this podcast. It means a lot to me that you're here and that you find stoicism interesting. I want to learn more about it. If you have any questions for me, send them to tanner at Tanner Helpscom and when I get enough of them, I'll create a bonus Qa episode and share my answers. Thanks again for listening and until next time, take care,.

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