2,000 years ago, the most powerful man in the world took his seat at a prestigious banquet, only to remind himself that his glass of vintage wine was just old, fermented grapes, that his roasted pork was nothing but a garnished dead pig, and that his robe was simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shellfish blood.
This man was Marcus Aurelius, the first-century Roman emperor who, despite having autonomous power over what was arguably the most dominant empire in history, never allowed his authority and luxuries to corrupt his perceptions. How easy would it have been for such a figure to become preoccupied, much like today’s power-hungry egomaniacs are, with fantastic stories to exaggerate the importance of his wine, his meal, and his clothes?
And yet he resisted.
But cultivating this sober, pragmatic worldview was no easy task for Marcus. Indeed, it was the byproduct of relentless mental discipline, much of which is captured in his Meditations. Among the strategies he implemented to tame his ego was, for lack of an official term, radical objectivity: using contempt to put luxuries in their proper place, seeing “valuable” assets as simple, material objects and evaluating them accordingly.
When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most’ (Meditations, 6.13).
Translation: take life at face value so you can focus on what’s important.
This art of radical objectivity eventually became a fundamental aspect of Stoicism, the school of philosophy which Marcus Aurelius inadvertently became a figurehead of after his death. And while he certainly didn’t invent radical objectivity per se, he did popularize it. His emphasis on mental clarity and self-restraint in a superficial world is woven into a number of Stoic discourses throughout history. The teachings of Epictetus, the Greek slave-turned-philosopher who lived during the same era, ran parallel to Marcus’ meditations:
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’
What a liberating thought: to know that we’re in charge of deciding whether we let glamor and excessive emotion conflict with our reasoned choice. It would seem self-evident to remind ourselves of this when, say, shopping for a car or trembling with excitement at the feet of a celebrity. How much tension could we relieve ourselves of by taking our desires off the pedestal we’ve blindly placed them on?
And yet we allow our perceptions to dictate our well-being.
Say what you will about philosophy, but now more than ever we need a mental framework that can subdue our baseless desires and bring us back down to Earth. Marcus Aurelius and the other first-century Stoics were undoubtedly among the most disciplined and pragmatic thinkers in recorded history, but it would be foolish to suggest that it was more difficult for them, along with those they taught, to resist the allure of consumerism than it is for us in 2018. Sure, there was fine wine and expensive clothing 2,000 years ago. But today, each of us must wake up and confront a multibillion-dollar marketing and advertising industry whose sole objective is to reverse any progress we make towards clarifying our perceptions.
There are men and women who devote their lives to manufacturing gadgets that are more addictive than cigarettes and brands that are more loveable than our own family and friends. And they are good at it. We need these things, we are told. They are part of our identity. Any marketing veteran knows that the less a product or service serves some utilitarian function, the more it implies about identity. But in a time when most of us have our primal, utilitarian needs met (food, water, shelter) charlatans and hacks have free reign to create identities for us.
Who would’ve thought the solution was written in a notebook 2,000 years ago?
Philosophy, particularly Stoicism, isn’t about asking vague questions that make life complicated. Philosophy is about setting our feet on the right path, one that leads to a good life characterized by clarity, not biased perceptions.
How often do we exaggerate the importance of our possessions or that which we wish to possess? How often do we put a veneer of sophistication over life’s trivialities? We tell ourselves stories about the most frivolous purchases in an attempt to enrich our lives. Ironically though, all these stories do is set us up for disappointment when we can’t get them (or when they’re taken away.) Picture the girl frantically checking her phone, equating Instagram likes with fulfillment. Or the grown man inwardly melting down when nobody notices his new BMW.
What would Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca say about these scenarios? Surely, they would point out the emptiness that results from getting so worked up over what isn’t under our control. Perhaps they would encourage channeling that energy towards a more tangible purpose.
Most philosophical and theological traditions agree that desire, though it is the root of suffering, will always be an inherent part of the human condition. But the last thing we should do is chastise ourselves for it, or worse, pretend we don’t desire anything. As the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello noted, the more we renounce something, the more power it has over us. Going minimalist for a month or throwing out our possessions is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound – it won’t fix the root of the problem. Instead, we should follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and lay our desires bare, ponder their worthlessness, and “strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.” It is by understanding our desires, and the emptiness of them, that we lose interest.
The question remains, then, what does being Stoically objective mean in a contemporary sense? We don’t have a creed, doctrine, or rulebook to answer that question, (nor do we need one) but it doesn’t hurt to have some inspiration. That being said, here are some applications of the Stoic art of radical objectivity with a 21st-century twist:
Single batch, artisan, or gourmet coffee is hot bean juice.
Social media apps are for-profit dopamine factories.
A Mercedes-Benz is an assortment of steel, plastic, and glass.
A Rolex is a miniature clock made out of rocks and metal.
Balenciaga shoes are pieces of leather stitched to rubber.
Celebrities are flesh-and-blood mortals with just as many, if not more, problems than we have.
The next time you feel inferior for not “living the good life,” see how transformative this exercise can be. Often by default, we hand over so much control to our biased judgements, even to the point of going into debt or sacrificing our wellbeing and sanity for the sake of them.
Take Apple watches for example: there are millions of people who own them, and millions more who want them. And why not? After all, Apple describes it as “the ultimate device for a healthy life.” But once you strip away the story and the fancy packaging, what more is it than a 1.5-square-inch piece of stainless steel strapped to your wrist that turns you into a puppet, jerking your head with each vibrating notification?
It’s only by managing our impulses that all of these things, watches, clothes, cars, lose their power over us. Not to mention, this can save us a lot of money.
This is not to reduce life to some sterile existence devoid of meaning. On the contrary, radical objectivity adds meaning to life: once we peel the glamour away from our material desires, the clouds begin to clear – what’s left are the priceless aspects of life, ones that can’t be reduced to physical attributes: companionship, wisdom, purpose, fulfillment.
To see things for what they truly are, without their ornamentation or status, is not only difficult but unpopular. Even if you don’t go as far as to relive Thoreau’s Walden, it’s not uncommon to draw strange looks when you abstain from luxuries that you can easily afford. And when that itch to blow money inevitably manifests itself, remember this observation from Seneca, who tutored the self-destructive Roman emperor Nero:
Slavery resides under marble and gold.
Outward show is often an indication of inward conflict. As Marcus Aurelius again reminds us, when we become certain that our accomplishments and possessions are more important than they truly are, it’s then that we are under their spell.
Dominic Vaiana is a writer and media strategist based in St. Louis, Missouri.