Second day of the Stoic Week, and things get complicate with the arrival on the scene of Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher, and the question whether we should seek fulfillment within ourselves or through external factors. The instigating quote is…
If you can 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 what is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6
The idea is to spend a few minutes today evaluating what values inform my existence – and that’s not so straightforward, because we are handed a set of values through our upbringing, but rarely we are trained to apply them. And it gets worse than that.
We have all heard people expound integrity, honesty and compassion, only to prove themselves to be quite willing to ignore those virtues for personal reasons. So maybe it’s better to evaluate what we do, and then put a label on it, than wave about a list of socially acceptable names that remain only that – names.
Value is a tricky thing. There is an excellent book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsing, that is tag-lined “An Inquiry into Values”, and that right now I’d feel like re-reading (I read it when I was in university) if only I could remember in what box is my copy at the moment.
Significantly, the book tells of a person that has a nervous breakdown when he starts obsessing about value, quality and the possibility of teaching of such concepts.
What I found interesting in the whole Stoic Week thing is the distinction the stoics made between Virtue (what’s good and is inside you, and does not depend from external gratifications) and “preferred indifferents”, that is those external factors that have no moral meaning, but are desirable anyway – like health, or financial stability.
And yet, material security does have a place in our lives.
In my experience, standing for principles can sometimes be a gateway to material problems like, for instance, not getting a job because to get the job you’d have to accept a form of blackmail by some local politico (an example off the top of my head… it happened to a friend of mine, you know…)
So, the stoics say that preserving our integrity is better than a full belly and a warm bed. And yes, I agree – but the point is being able to do it when we get out of philosophical discussion and into the field.
All in all, the second day of this Stoic Week has led to more questions than answers, but well, it’s a good thing anyway.