For the ancient Greco-Romans, and particularly for the Stoics, philosophy was not an academic pursuit, but a way of life. So says Pierre Hadot at the onset of the third chapter of his landmark The Inner Citadel, which I am discussing in the ongoing edition of our Stoic book club. (part I here, part II here.) In order to make his point, he frames the whole of Marcus’ Meditations as a set of “spiritual” exercises. But what does that mean, really?
Hadot argues that throughout the book Marcus reminds himself of three fundamental rules of life (more on this in a moment), which are themselves derived from a small set of general principles, or “dogmas.” The word, which today indicates stubborn attachment to unquestionable rules, in Greek simply meant a universal principle, an axiom (which one could criticize and reject) from which one derives specific precepts for practical conduct. Here is an example of a Stoic dogma:
“On the occasion of everything that causes you sadness, remember to use this ‘dogma’: not only is this not misfortune, but it is a piece of good fortune for you to bear up under it courageously.” (Meditations, IV.49.6)
As Hadot points out, this particular dogma itself is derived from a more general Stoic dogma, the notion that the only truly bad things for us are our own bad judgments, and that the only truly good things for us are our own good judgments. That, in turn, derives from an even higher level dogma: the dichotomy of control, according to which the only things that are up to us are our judgments. In fact, we could push things one more level up and argue that the dichotomy itself is derived from the highest Stoic dogma of them all: live according to nature, which means live by taking seriously both the nature of the cosmos in general, and human nature in particular. It is in the nature of things that we only have complete control on our judgments.
In what sense, though, is the Meditations a book of spiritual exercises? Because Marcus realizes that one has to keep recalling one’s dogmas and precepts in order to internalize them and act accordingly, and a very good way to do that is to write and rewrite them, using one’s own formulations.
I mentioned above three rules of life that Marcus kept reminding himself of. What are these?
(i) Try to express things with objectivity, so to arrive at correct judgments.
(ii) Consent to “fate,” or whatever the cosmic web of cause-effect brings about.
(iii) Always pursue justice and act altruistically.
Hadot interestingly connects these rules to three distinct domains of reality (respectively: our faculty of judgment, universal nature, and human nature), as well as to three types of activity (respectively: judgment, desire, and impulse to action). So, for instance, consenting to “fate” is logically connected to the Stoic understanding of universal nature, since the cosmos is a material ensemble governed by relations of cause and effect. This in turn is linked to desire, because such realization ought to affect what is proper or not proper for us to desire. To wish for a dead loved one to be alive is, in Epictetus’ words, to wish for a fig in winter time. Figs are not to be found in the winter, nor are dead people seen to come back to life. It is, therefore, understandable and yet foolish to desire that to be the case.
According to Hadot’s interpretation, the Meditations also features other kinds of practices, for instance imaginative ones, what modern Stoics call “visualization exercises.” For instance, Marcus vividly brings up to his mind certain situations or people, in order to reflect on what we can learn about the human condition and apply to our own predicament:
“Imagine the time of Vespasian. You’ll see all of that: people getting married, raising a family, falling ill, dying, going to war, celebrating festivals, doing business, working the fields; there’ll be flatterers, arrogant or suspicious people, conspirators; there’ll be people who desire the death of others; others who grumble about present events; there’ll be lovers, misers, others who lust after consulate or kingship.” (Meditations, IV.32)
The point here is that there is nothing new under the Sun. Not in the sense that the specifics aren’t different, of course they are. But human nature has remained pretty much the same. We still go after the same things and recoil from the same others. Which is why Stoicism is still very relevant two millennia later: we carry iPhones and have developed nuclear weapons, but our desires and fears have remained unchanged, and just as misguided, from before the time of Socrates.
Hadot’s approach also explains very nicely why the Meditations appears redundant and “preachy.” Marcus is not writing for an audience, but for himself. That is why the book hinges on a small number of themes, to which Marcus keeps coming back. He says so himself:
“You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them.” (Meditations, III.24.103)
Why does Marcus do this? Because, as Hadot explains, “dogmas are not mathematical rules, learned once and for all and then mechanically applied. Rather, they must somehow become achievement of awareness, intuitions, emotions, and moral experiences … it is not enough to reread what has already been written … what counts is the reformulation.” (p. 51) And that is why, in part, I myself write essays on Stoicism, or produce an almost daily podcast of Stoic meditations. I hope, of course, that it will help others. But, mostly, it helps myself. In order to explain Stoic philosophy to others I have to better understand it myself. I have to constantly reformulate ideas, come up with new metaphors and analogies. All of which helps me to internalize Stoic wisdom and, hopefully, live a better life.
(next: The philosopher-slave and the emperor-philosopher)