To build some reflection time each morning, I am going to try to post a quote here, now and then. Today is one that I commonly put on my bathroom or bedroom mirror and that came up last night, from the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
For those of us struggling to get up this Monday, Marcus Aurelius has some good advice:
In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?
I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.
Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.
But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.
For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.
Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.
Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:
Flying is stressful. Flying during the winter is even more stressful. Last week, the winter storm “Hercules” hit the northeast United States, dumping feet of snow. Now, an Arctic chill creeps eastward across the northern midwest, chilling the air in some places to negative 65 degrees Fahrenheit (with windchill), as further storms hit. Coming at the end of the holiday season, the timing couldn’t be worse. U.S. Airlines canceled over 2,300 flights last Thursday and about 1,500 flights early Friday, according to the New York Daily News, and the trend continued, with over 6,000 flights canceled yesterday.
My parents, meanwhile, struggled to navigate the Kafkaesque airline industry to reroute, cancel, or reschedule flights for their long-ago-planned anniversary trip to San Francisco and Sonoma. They didn’t have much luck. Saturday, I spent an hour and a half with my dad waiting in a line stocked with people with canceled and delayed flights–some of them trying their luck for days–only to be told we couldn’t do anything in a flat, minute-long answer. Sunday, United Air canceled their flight, and they canceled their trip.
On both days, when we called, a pre-recorded message said the company was too flooded with calls to help. The others in line had the same problem, one man insisting he waited on hold for six hours before giving up and driving an hour to the airport to meet with someone. Others told similar tales.
Meanwhile, indignant flyers hammer employees at desk with questions, as their machines occasionally froze and their administration sorted through the swath of situations.
From a large perspective, airport stress is insignificant. It is, as the internet memes say, “a first-world problem,” and seems a minor cost to pay for the ability to hop in a metal machine and fly around the world in relative comfort at record speeds, going from New York City to Cairo in 12 hours. Compared to the Silk Road, the bandit-laced treks of merchants in the Middle Ages, and the tenuous crossing of the Atlantic on cramped wooden ships by early settlers, flying is easy.
But in the midst of it, airport travel is a difficult endeavor and that stress requires serious effort to overcome. Fortunately, stoicism provide a few helpful tips.
By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.
In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags, and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.
In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”
There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.