This past week, Giselda, a member of my book club, who was reading the works of Plato when she was 13, did a book review of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” At one point, another member, perhaps our oldest and perkiest, bravely stood up and declared that she had never quite understood what philosophy was. I expect that some of us were pleased with her statement, like let’s clear this up for once and for all.
Giselda explained that translated from the Greek, it meant the love of knowledge. Since then I have looked up philosophy in different sources, and it seems to pertain to the study of the meaning knowledge and of life, or can be a guiding principle for behavior. In many ways, it is a definition of various religions and beliefs, usually based upon the teachings of someone who started that school of thought.
Zeno of Citium was one of those creative thinkers in the 3rd Century B.C., and he founded the school of Stoicism. Stoicism developed in a time of turmoil and crisis in Greece as a method of personal survival and sanity in a world seemingly out of control. Essentially, as a stoic one first must recognize what one can control and what one cannot. That leaves us mainly with our own emotions and thoughts or reason and how we respond to the joys and vicissitudes of life. As a stoic, in order to lead a good life, one must be master of both one’s emotions and appetites, and most importantly, live in harmony with nature. This harmony includes other people, even if we do not always agree with them.
Marcus Aurelius was a stoic and also an emperor. He ruled the Roman Empire from 161 A.D. to 180 A.D. For much of his reign, he was well loved by his citizenry, even allowing freedom of the press in a time when criticism of rulers could bring execution.
His book, “Meditations,” was more a diary and reminder to himself about what he should strive for as a stoic. It was only discovered centuries later. Actually, his advice to himself sounds like good counsel to anyone who has a position in government. President Kennedy, the anniversary of whose death is remembered this month, was certainly a stoic when it came to his health and physical pain. No so much when it came to pleasure. But then, Aurelius fathered 13 children during his marriage, and he lived to be only 59.
For some reason I have always thought of stoicism as being connected to Sparta and thus a Spartan way of life, thinking it meant settling for simplicity and the basics in life. But that does not seem to be so. It is alive and well today, and in many people’s lives in the AA prayer that generally asks, “God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things that I can, and with wisdom to know the difference.” This could almost be a stoic’s prayer. And one might add, in this day of instant communication of our thoughts and actions, no matter how ignoble, “and the good sense to keep my struggle to myself.”
The world seems to be in turmoil again today and there are many things that are beyond not just our ability to change or control, but beyond any one person’s to find the solutions to much of what humans have wrought or what nature is manifesting. We can only control our response and our own actions. All of this has brought me to a quote I came across recently; one that I am surprised I never read before since it was evidently said by one of my favorite heroes, Abraham Lincoln:
“Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of
President Kennedy must have remembered Lincoln’s words when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” And then established the Peace Corps.