#StoicWeek: Day 4

Old kettle

The reading for today is once again Marcus Aurelius. I have no complaints, given I read him every day anyway!

If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage… turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or position of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6

I’ve spent so long thinking about this particular passage over the last couple of years I’m actually struggling to find anything to say about it, which is odd. In other words, I feel like I’ve internalised it to such an extent that all I can do is nod my head. Just like buying books and putting them on your shelf, however, this does not mean I’ve actually done anything useful as a result.

The notes for today from the handbook include this passage about the ‘four chief virtues’ of Stoicism:

The four chief virtues, taken together, are intended to cover the main areas of human expertise or ‘living well’: rational understanding, proper treatment of others, management of emotions and desires. The Stoics saw the virtues as a complementary set, which were mutually supporting, so that you could not have one virtue without having the others too. They also recognised there were many subdivisions of the main four virtues and that they could be understood from a number of different perspectives.

It’s the holistic nature of Stoicism that appeals to me. You’re attempting to become a well-rounded human being who’s self-sufficient, with appropriate emotional responses. It’s not, say, working on just one of the ‘seven deadly sins’. The idea is, for example, that ‘proper treatment of others’ flows from ‘rational undrestanding’, and managing ’emotions and desires’.

I’ll be away this evening and tomorrow morning, so I’ll reflect on the second reading for today now:

Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you’ll see what the result is. And if you’re laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to talk any distance, you’ll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind… So if you don’t want to be hot-tempered, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get angry. ‘I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third…’ If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. ‘I didn’t lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.’ If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me. – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18

Although I tend to find Epictetus a bit patronising (I’ve read his work before, but don’t choose to include it in my daily reading) this is a good passage. “Habits,” as I’m always fond of quoting Cory Doctorow as saying, “are things that you get for free”. As I read this morning in Mason Currey’s Daily rituals : how great minds make time, find inspiration, and get to work, it parallels what William James may have exhorted others to do, but which he struggled to manage himself. As James wrote in Psychology, a Briefer Course:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

If there’s anything that’s taught me the value of routines, it’s having children. They crave routine, perhaps because novelty and deviation from that routine provides so much joy.

My aims for today? I’m going to follow Epictetus and try not to lose my temper, or, indeed, show any form of irritation to another human being.

Image by Jaime Spaniol