Monday, May 4, 2009

Controlling Addiction and Compulsive Behavior - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.11

Meditation XI.11 - Controlling Addiction and Compulsive Behavior - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

If the things do not come to you, the pursuits and avoidances of which disturb you, still in a manner you go to them.1 Let then your judgment about them be at rest, and they will remain quiet, and you will not be seen either pursuing or avoiding.2


(1) Every meditation crafted by Marcus Aurelius reflects or imitates a universal truth about the laws of nature in the manner that an artist in her paintings, music, poetry, or sculpture attempts to imitate a truth about existence. As a consequence every meditation is also a meme, a modern term coined by the British ethologist Richard Dawkins (1941 -). The memetic quality of each of these meditations is bound to the sequence of ideas, symbols and processes laid out by its author. The word meme was taken from the Greek mimema (something imitated). According to Dawkins, memes are analogous to genes, and like the genes in a DNA sequence can self-replicate and even mutate in response to cultural pressures.

In an attempt to simplify these passages (or to represent Marcus as a new-age thinker), several recent but occasionally glib translations of the meditations lose their memetic qualities. I could, for example, offer you a plainer syntax structure for this meditation by restructuring the first sentence to read: "Even though there are many pleasures (or struggles) that you would rather not pursue (or not avoid), still you are inclined to pursue (or avoid) them." The literal meaning might seem clearer in this form, but the meditation loses its power as a meme and, frankly, much of its relevance to Stoicism. The sequence of intellectual steps Marcus lays out for us is essential, just as the sequence of genes in a DNA molecule is essential. Interchange the strands, and the DNA will either no longer replicate or replicate into a monstrosity. This is the reason I have resisted the temptation to "dumb down" Marcus's language.

We are intellectually forced, in following Marcus's sequence, to enter into the meditation on his terms, and in the order he specifies. We are required first to think abstractly about "things" not coming. We are secondly required to identify, from our own experiences, just what sorts of things we pursue - perhaps addictively - and what sorts of things we avoid - perhaps compulsively. And thirdly we are faced with the classic addict's (or laggard's) dilemma. There may indeed be many such things that we know are not good for us - but still pursue, if even only in our imagination - or ought to be struggling to achieve - but avoid in our psychological attitude toward struggle or work, even though we know these struggles or work duties are good and necessary for us. A modern expression for this psychological situation, applied to a controlled alcohol addict, is the so-called "dry drunk." In our working lives this psychology is reflected in those who cannot wait for the work day to end - even though they might be excellent workers (although psychologically still laggards).

(2) The judgment we are required to set "at rest" - if only for the moment that the compulsion occurs - is the "opinion" that we really need the pleasure we pursue, or that we really abhor the struggle we avoid. If we examine such situations from our real personal experience, we will probably realize that objectively we do not need those pleasures, and ought really not abhor those struggles. Such a shift in opinion is a shift to reality. Addictions and compulsions are aberrations. We know that. Stoicism offers a mode of thinking that shows us the truth - that our addictions and compulsions really are false opinions. When we learn to take these mental holidays from addictive or compulsive attitudes, we can learn how to release ourselves from addictive or compulsive patterns.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.

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