The Greatest of All Struggles
“Thou wilt soon die, and thou art not yet simple, not free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, IV:30.
Reading the above passage this morning, I felt as though someone had just given me a swift kick between the legs. Not that I expected to die anytime soon. (I’m 52: an advanced age in Marcus’ day, but “the new 30” today.) Rather, I was wounded by the reminder that, despite all the years I had studied Stoic philosophy, I still all-too often allowed external events to disturb my peace of mind, behaved unkindly to those close me, and failed to live according to reason and practical wisdom.
Aspiring to a Stoic lifestyle is easy, but only as long as we’re never challenged to put our philosophy into practice. Such was my case throughout most of my adult life, as I always lived alone, or, if I happened to be living with someone else, still acted as though I were single. But then, late in life, I met a woman whom I knew was “the One” and we had two children with each other. Suddenly my freedom had vanished, and I found myself facing responsibilities hitherto unknown to me. The greatest challenge was the task of staying home and taking care of our children on my own. As their mother has a regular job, and I – an eternal doctoral candidate, frustrated writer, and part-time tour-guide – only find myself working irregularly, I am charged with staying home with the children for weeks or even months at a time. Practicing Stoic ataraxia (serenity) and prosoche (mindfulness) is of tremendous help when trying to be a good parent. Acquiring these habits of mind requires daily training. Alas, there come the days when it becomes far too easy to cast all of my Stoic principles to the wind.
Yesterday was such a day.
I found myself alone with the children again. Their mother had left for work some hours earlier, leaving me once more with the task of maintaining some semblance of order in our home. But all I saw was chaos. The dishes were piled high in the sink, the laundry was all over the bathroom, the toys were lying out all over the place, and a large pool of urine was spreading over the parlour floor (my one-and-a-half-year-old son had run away from me before I could put a fresh nappy on him). Our home had become the site for a reenactment of the Sack of Rome by the Vandals. The perfect opportunity for me to practice Stoic virtues, to do what was in my power to restore order and not worry about the rest, to remember that my children were simply being children, and, no matter what happened, to treat them with kindness and care. But I forgot all that. Instead, I allowed the reptilian portion of brain to highjack my mind, and give free reign to my irrational impulses.
I screamed, as loud as I could. Nothing verbal, more of a cry of desperation. AAAAAAGH. My son and my four-year-old daughter responded with stunned silence. There were no tears, only confused looks from small children trying to understand what their father had just done. I’ll never forget the fear in their eyes, though. That was much worse than the sound of crying. Worse still was the realization that I had abandoned my philosophy. As Marcus Aurelius would have said, I was acting like a puppet on a string, allowing myself to be jerked around by irrational emotions. And then another passage from the Meditations came back to me: Let it be clear to you that the peace of green fields can always be yours, in this, that, or any other spot; and that nothing is any different here from what it would be either up in the hills, or down by the sea, or wherever else you will. You will find the same thought in Plato, where he speaks of living within the city walls ‘as though milking his flocks in a mountain sheepfold’. I had to get back to that place of peace, but first I had to make amends. So I apologized to my children, confessed to them that Papa had a little problem with his anger, and told them that, no matter what he said or did, he still loved them very much.
Only now do I finally understand Marcus, when he says that “the struggle against passion’s mastery” is “the greatest of all contests.” But even Marcus himself struggled to achieve peace of mind. As the Meditations show, some mornings he didn’t want to get up and go about his duties. He often thought the people he dealt with at court were cruel, duplicitous, and stupid. Some days he had trouble controlling his desire for beautiful girls and boys. Moreover, he constantly had to remind himself to remain calm and to accept whatever the fates sent his way. If the emperor of Rome still managed to remain a decent human being, despite all of his travails, then how hard can it be for the rest of us today?
This morning I also read an obituary in an online newspaper. A cousin of mine, someone I had known well when I was very young, but hadn’t seen in over twenty years, had died. He was 60. Only eight years older than I am. While I may hope not to follow him to the grave in the near future, my time, viewed from a cosmological perspective, still remains very short. Despite the moments when I fail to live up to the standards of Stoicism, I still believe that it’s the best way for me to put whatever time I have left to good use.
More about Kevin: Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, writer, and tour-guide living and working in Potsdam, Germany. He specializes in the early modern history of Prussia, Germany, and Central Europe, but is also interested in urban studies, philosophy, and, of course, Stoicism. So far, he has written for the British periodical “History Today”, and has provided commentary for the Deutsche Welle radio programme “Inside Europe”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.