#StoicWeek: Day 2


Today’s morning text for reflection:

Early in the morning, when you are finding it hard to wake up, hold this thought in your mind: ‘I am getting up to do the work of a human being. Do I still resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for and for which I was brought into the world? Or was I framed for this, to lie under the bedclothes and keep myself warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant’. So were you born for pleasure: in general were you born for feeling or for affection? Don’t you see the plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees doing their own work, and playing their part in making up an ordered world. And then are you unwilling to do the work of a human being? Won’t you run to do what is in line with your nature? – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I enjoy getting up early, before everyone else in my family, to read everything from Marcus Aurelius to Montaigne. I have a series of books that I read on repeat. Some might say that I’m temperamentally suited to getting up and going to bed early, but I think it’s a cultivated habit. I like getting things done, and (in my experience) those kind of people achieve things in the morning, not late at night. I might be wrong.

I’m sure we’ll come onto this later in the week (I’m not reading ahead, which is unlike me) but in addition to not lying in bed, even on weekends, I also take a cold shower every weekday morning. The look of disgust on some people’s face when I tell them this fact is hilarious! The truth is, however, that introducing small ‘hardships’ into your day makes you much more resilient in the face of greater trials. It’s like exercise — and especially running — in that respect.

In the notes to this morning’s meditations within the Stoic Week handbook is this passage from Epictetus:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, social role or status, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. – Epictetus

My father spent a few years towards the end of his career working in the Middle East. A Christian, he nevertheless came back with the rather Muslim habit of appending inshallah (Arabic for ‘God willing’) to the end of sentences that involved planning for the future. There is an inherent humility in this that I respect.

At first blush, an exhortation to concentrate only on those things ‘within our power’ seems a bit defeatist. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 35 years on earth so far, it’s that you can’t control other people’s opinions of you. What’s left is ensuring that, to quote Montaigne (who, in turn is quoting Horace) you become an ’empire unto yourself’.

To say that living is a preparation for dying sounds a bit morbid, but I’d very much like to die well. Cicero talks a lot about this, about how death isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, and how we can be prepared for it by practicing the ‘separation of soul and body’ while we’re still alive. Beside my bed I have a memento mori, a beautiful object whose only purpose is to remind me that everything is temporary and one day I will die.

It’s hubris to think that there is anything I can control other than my own (internal) empire. I can try and rule it benevolently and with reason, while trying to affect the external world in positive ways. If things don’t turn out as I expect, then it only goes to show what I already knew — that some things are under my control, and some things are not.

Image via Quin Stevenson