Keep your philosophy ready.Marcus Aurelius
My granddaughter, aged 8, is keen on chess. Maybe obsessed is a better word. She has beat her father a couple of times, and challenges me to better focus when we play. Recently, we were playing and she said, pointing, “I wish my queen was here rather than there.” I start each day with a stoic aphorism. It’s something I reflect on throughout the course of my day. When Margot said this, I reflexively paraphrased that day’s adage, “It’s better to wish for what is, than hope for what is not.” Her father turned, sporting a sly grin, and said, “The old philosopher has spoken!” My granddaughter screwed up her face and gave me one of those looks. I’m sure you can picture it.
I mention this because my response to her surprised many in the room, me most of all. I was, of course, paraphrasing Epictetus:
Don’t ask for things to happen as you would like them to, but wish them to happen as they actually do, and you will be all right.How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Epictetus, Translated by A.A. Long (Princeton University Press, 2018) p. 17.
We have been working our way through the Enchiridion at our local stoa here in Baltimore and had recently discussed this teaching. Aside from being profound advice, the passage resonated with me for it’s literary brevity and poetic symmetry. I always respond with attention when ideas and words align in beautiful ways. But more to the point, my reflexive response to Margot suggested that my stoic studies were taking root, that the ideas had unpacked their bags and begun setting up house. They were becoming residents of my being–my philosophy was becoming a way of life.
When I was practicing Zen Buddhism our teacher exhorted us to consider enlightenment with all seriousness. The wisdom of enlightenment was possible, he taught. We studied the lives and teachings of the ancient masters with a keen eye to the path. I bring that attitude to my stoic practice, and although I acknowledge that sagehood is an aspiration only, I’m nonetheless on the lookout for indicators that I’m moving in the right direction. Granted, perhaps spewing philosophical aphorisms points more to an annoying trait of character than wisdom taking hold; but I wish to believe that a subtle shift has occurred.
Further, it is not lost on me that my position on this speaks to the passage cited directly: Am I asking for a semblance of stoic wisdom because I would like it so, or am I wishing for the thing as it actually is? Regardless of that (somewhat) rhetorical question, I find encouragement in the writing of Pierre Hadot:
The goal is to reactualize, rekindle, and ceaselessly reawaken an inner state which is in constant danger of being numbed or extinguished. The task – ever renewed – is to bring back to order an inner discourse which becomes dispersed and diluted in the futility of routine.The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press) p. 51.
I am aware that Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were personal exhortations to “reawaken an inner state.” My advice over the chess board to my granddaughter suggested that at that precise and present moment my inner state was awake. My personal capacity for “meditation” was functioning and seeking an opportunity be to exercised. I know this is a minor thing in the grand scheme, but I find it encouraging, nonetheless. A natural response without cogitation is a degree of flow, as it were, a state of being – or in stoic terms, a natural accordance with nature. I’m on the lookout for such little things. As Marcus wrote:
…reflect on the fact that what results from this tiny thing is no tiny thing at all!Meditations, 9.29
My path to this place is, in my experience, somewhat unique. On my eighth birthday, while walking across backyards to my best friend’s house, a curious thought struck me: If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived or will it have been wasted? I have shared this story with many over the ensuing years, and more than a few have suggested that I was a curiously morbid little bugger. Such a thought at eight years old! Perhaps I was, but I don’t really think so.
Regardless, I’ve wondered many times over the years where that question –If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived or will it have been wasted? – came from? There was no trauma in my life, no death in the family. As best I can piece together, it was seeing images from Vietnam on the evening news. Young men at war. It was a frightening prospect, an existential awakening. Ever mindful of the tragic events of that period I am, nonetheless, forever grateful for what unwittingly I learned then. Life is not simple and possibly short, be mindful of it, pay attention to it. My eight year-old self had stumbled upon a theme that was to steer the course of my life. It was my childhood premeditatio malorum moment.
College found me pursuing philosophy, but to the best of my recollection I took no classes that introduced me directly to the stoics. Aside from the necessary introductory requirements my interest lay largely in American philosophy, the transcendentalists and the pragmatists specifically. Stoicism came up on my radar many years later and I have Montaigne to thank for the introduction. Montaigne to Epictetus is a circuitous path, aside from the great philosopher’s quote the French master had inscribed above his writing desk, “That which worries men are not things but that which they think about them.” Montaigne is forever more the skeptic than the stoic, but still the influence is there and it caught my attention.
Yet, it wasn’t until Stoic Week 2016 that I made a conscious effort to learn more. As I page through my journal for that week, I smile at the now familiar themes: What is within our power? Self-discipline and Stoic simplicity; The Stoic Reserve Clause; Stoic Mindfulness; Stoic Philanthropy; The View From Above, and so on. These were fresh and new approaches just two years ago, but now the concepts seem like old friends. They have become, as I noted above, a part of my core being, a way of life.
My eight year-old self was challenged: If I die tomorrow will my life have been well lived, or will it have been wasted? More than five decades later I would read a response in Marcus Aurelius (quoting Plato):
A real man should forget about living a certain number of years…and turn his attention to how he can best live the life before him.Meditations 7.45
I am fortunate that the kid back then didn’t wait around for an answer but went looking for it. My definition of how best to live took many forms over the ensuing years. However, I innately sensed that the answer was not to be found “out there.” My most important and insightful attempts to answer the question have always been internal. My youthful goal of a life of philosophical scholarship was derailed. Life and family obligations shifted my focus while simultaneously affording me other opportunities for reflection and growth. Regardless of the path, however, I chose to live as a philosopher, albeit unwittingly so most of the time. To quote Hadot again:
a philosopher in antiquity was not someone who wrote philosophical books, but someone who led a philosophical life.”The Inner Citadel,p.61
To which I reply, this modern philosopher is happy to wish for what is, and is indifferent to all the rest, regardless of the path taken to this place.
Postscript: My granddaughter did not win the game I mention above. But she did put me in check before I gave her no escape, upon which she again, screwed up her face and gave this old philosopher the stink eye. Check mate.
Doug Bruns is a reader, writer, thinker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses to: having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; missing the summer lakes of his youth, and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. You can find more of his writing on Medium. His blog, “the house I live in” can be read here.