Friday, August 28, 2009
Stoic Equanimity - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.32
Meditation VIII.32 - Stoic Equanimity - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
It is your duty to order your life well in every single act;1 and if every act does its duty, as far as is possible, be content; and no one is able to hinder you so that each act shall not do its duty.2 - But something external will stand in the way. - Nothing will stand in the way of your acting justly and soberly and considerately. - But perhaps some other active power will be hindered. - Well, but by acquiescing in the hindrance and by being content to transfer your efforts to that which is allowed, another opportunity of action is immediately put before you in place of that which was hindered, and one which will adapt itself to this ordering of which we are speaking.3
(1) Stoic virtue isn't restricted to Sundays. Stoics do not get time off for good behavior. Living rightly is expected, and mandated by nature in every act. From a religious perspective this seems harsh. Most religions portray virtuous behavior as sacrificial. We make sacrifices in life as investments that bring us a pay-off in a life after death. To be good requires that we must resist temptation, and act always in ways that will lead to a heavenly reward - short term pain leads to long term gain. Stoicism turns this notion on its head. There is no long term pay-off in Stoicism. We must act rightly in every act - but in Stoicism the pay-off is immediate. Ordering our lives in these ways produces equanimity, serenity and peace in the here and now.
(2) The Stoic has a duty to react to her environment by doing what is best for her community in every reasonable way. This is possible because if we are governed always by reason (as opposed to passion), we can always restrict self-serving desire, reject false temptations, and remain sober, restrained, and in control. Religions represent this approach as something that requires enormous will and as possible only through the intercession of a divine external agency. Interestingly Stoicism presents its case in a similar way but with a notable difference - the external agency in Stoicism requires no intercession because this agency is reason, and reason is within us from birth. It is through meditation we can discover this invincible and natural power.
(3) Naturally we cannot be expected to be successful in ordering our actions in ways that will produce the best results for the world community. We live in a sea of conflict that includes many people who act in opposition to nature. Human beings - perhaps most human beings - live their lives in ignorance of nature. We ought to expect this. We will be rejected, and opposed, and limited by the actions of those who desire to restrict us from acting rightly. The Stoic accepts this - not with anger or with frustration or with uncompromising religious zeal - but as a necessary and clear consequence of human freedom. We can choose to live well, or we can choose to live in self-centered ways. A Stoic never behaves as a righteous vigilante fighting for justice at every turn. A Stoic meets injustice calmly and with compassion. When we encounter opposition, rather than deny it or crush it, we confront it, scale it, or work around it.
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.