Today I graduated from the Marcus Aurelius School of the College of Stoic Philosophers. The following eleven aphorisms were written by me during my final quarter. We call this practice hypomnemata, a term perhaps best translated as “remembrances”. More than simply well wishes, or expressions of hope, hypomnema are records of struggle. Each “remembrance” is an application of Stoic dogma to a real problem we encountered in our day. I hope you enjoy them.
Remember that eudaimonia is more than a pleasant subjective state. Not only is it the goal of all our actions, well intended or misguided, but also our fulfillment and the state of harmony with the universe. It is in eudaimonia that we act in keeping with the divine logos and our own individual nature. How do we achieve eudaimonia? By keeping in mind what is “up-to-us” and “not-up-to-us”. By disciplining our desires and examining our judgements. By doing these things we fulfill our duty to ourselves as rational beings, to the social web in which we live, and to the divine cosmos. Through this we achieve arete – excellence of character. Through excellence we achieve human flourishing and happiness.
The universe being ruled by divine providence, consider your part. It is not to predict accurately some far future state, nor are you responsible for understanding all of antiquity. Your assigned part in the universal drama is only this present life – even less burdensome than that, only the present moment. Fulfill your duty and resolve the action before you with honor. Is that not enough for any man?
Your character, as you presently find it, you have inherited from yesterday. What shape it takes tomorrow will depend on your actions and judgements today. The care of your future self, it has been placed in your charge as a sacred duty.
Begone vain fantasies! Dreams of fame and fortune, even if your subjects are to be preferred over their opposites, they are only so if gained through personal excellence. But you, puffed up soap bubbles that you are, have no part in labor, or discipline, or prudence, or wisdom. That is to say, you take me further away from the very things you feature! Despite this, I should not be angry with you, for you are the products of an imagination I have trained. I should not even be angry with myself, for by catching you mid-stream, I am making progress.
Always consider this before any course of action: ‘Will this activity make me better or worse?’ If better, then you should pursue it gladly, even if it requires effort and some trouble. If worse, you should turn away from it, even if it seemed pleasant before you examined it.
Happiness is not a possession or a construction – even a mental one. Happiness is a state of the soul. We usually notice it only in passing from it, in hindsight. While we are happy, we are usually too absorbed in it to mentally comment on our condition. Perhaps it is this lack of a need for comment that characterizes happiness? We could describe it as a self-sufficient configuration of the universe. It does not lack our psychic participation, but is filled up by it, leaving no remainder. It is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a great ‘Yes’ to life as it is. Happiness is therefore theoretically possible in every moment, since assent lies entirely within our power.
Certainly, no one wishes to be ill. Health is preferred by all, but in our culture it has become an obsession among a certain class of people. Care of the body is almost a new religion where we equate physical well being to moral goodness, and seek to propitiate the forces of decay with arcane diets and rituals. Instead, we should regard this body as an inheritance from the gods – certainly to be cared for, but ultimately to be used. It is a physical thing, and it is the nature of physical things to be subject to wear. We may not enjoy illness, but it should not surprise or alarm us.
On what target do you set your aim? Consider the father of philosophy himself, Socrates. Socrates thought little of riches, and while he had fame he did not seek it, nor did he fear death. Throughout his life he followed the charge laid upon him by the god Apollo at Delphi. This was his highest duty, and yet he did not abandon his fellow man but lived among them, married, raised children and served his city. Why would he do these things except that they too were in keeping with his duty to God? What do we learn from this? That our highest duty is to follow the divine, to do nothing contrary to reason, and like a good soldier to not abandon our post.
Are even arguments and feuds according to divine providence? Yes! For anger is an emotion and therefore the child of judgement. Perhaps the reason for the judgement has been twisted or long forgotten, so do your part and drag it up to the light! Examine it and see if you cannot find some valid point in it, something good, true, and beautiful. Remember that you cannot be harmed by truth, but go gently here. Remember that self-care is the first imperative of all beings, and no one willingly gives sway to an enemy. Even wives will concede a point if it is made in a fair and kindly manner… eventually.
You will never know with certainty what any great mind of the past intended. Wisdom is not something you can hold, like a possession, rather it holds you, lifts you up, carries you through life, for the world is reason and you are a part of the world. You can no more take it all in then you can drink the ocean. The great thinkers you so admire will not give you answers. They can only show you the way someone once traveled to find their own answers. By all means, read their words, but do so as a guide for your own thoughts. As the greatest in wisdom have said, “Know thyself”, “Inquire within”.
A statue cannot be carved in a single blow. It emerges from the rock slowly, freed by increment – blow after persistent blow. Each tiny change reveals the work of art within. Be diligent, and patient with yourself.
I will be continuing on with the College as a Faculty member for our beginner’s Stoic Essential Studies program. If you are at all interested in Stoicism, or learning classic philosophy in its original context, please consider joining us.