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Failing to Think Well

There’s an especially ridiculous passage in Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations that I’d like to complain about today. Let me start by saying that I consider Meditations to be one of the best Stoic texts out there. It’s simple, short, and accessible. It’s great for people who are new to Stoicism, and it’s a stalwart companion for old hats looking to shore up their hard-won indifference. In short, it is my go-to Stoic instruction manual.

Most of the musings that it contains are sound, but Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and introspector extraordinaire, lays out what I consider to be an impossible task in Meditations III.IV:

“You must habituate yourself only to thoughts about which if someone were to suddenly ask ‘What is in your mind now?’…from the answer it would immediately be plain that all was simplicity and kindness, the thoughts of a social being, who disregards [thoughts] which you would blush to put into words…”

Now Meditations was Marcus Aurelius’ personal journal. Its contents weren’t meant for public consumption, so this wasn’t necessarily a call to action aimed at the general public. It was intended as a reminder to himself.

We’re all our own worst critics, and people tend to expect more of themselves than they would of others. If I keep that in mind, it does make this passage a little easier to swallow. But I every time I read it, I still find myself questioning whether Aurelius was actually serious.

Because he couldn’t have been serious, right?

Did he really think he could keep such a tight grip on himself that even his thoughts could stand up to constant scrutiny?

To me, this seems like the philosophical equivalent of believing a master martial artist can kill someone with the casual touch of a pressure point. It’s a nifty idea, but nothing more.

If I exclude the possibility that Aurelius was some kind of Superstoic who was actually capable of keeping his thoughts under airtight control, I’m left with two assumptions. Either Aurelius was full of it, or he thought that by setting an impossible standard he might goad himself to new heights of Stoic excellence, even if he could never hope to accomplish what he’d actually asked of himself.

I’m going to assume that it was the latter, because the rest of his Meditations give little reason to think that Aurelius was full of it. This passage must have been written as a way to kick the reader (himself) into action—or rather apathy, that state towards which all committed Stoics strive.

Someone who spent so much time examining his life must have known that thoughts arise whether we want them to or not. We don’t sit down and determine what to think, and then think it. Our impressions, intentions, and inclinations all just bubble up from oblivion.

I doubt that even the most outwardly just and level-headed human on the planet could pass the test that Aurelius prescribes—of having one’s thoughts examined at random and without warning. Even they would occasionally be subject to bizarre, intrusive thoughts—or at least the beginnings of them.

But that’s the key thing. We can’t stop thoughts—any kind of thoughts—from starting. But we can choose not to indulge them past their inception.

 No-one can stop the occasional burst of anger, violent fantasy, or urgent desire from appearing in the space between their ears, but we can decide whether or how to act on these once they do appear. We can strive to let go of them when they do us no good. We can refuse to let them rule us.

As Aurelius himself says in Meditations VI.XI:

“Whenever you are obliged to be in any way troubled, quickly return to yourself, and do not, more than you are obliged, fall out of step; for you will be more master of the measure by continually returning to it.”

You can’t stop unwanted thoughts from presenting themselves, but you can keep in mind the kind of person you want to be and the way you want to carry yourself in the world, and return to these ideals whenever you stray.

You can’t eliminate the possibility that a random sample of your inner life will be embarrassing or ugly, but you can at least make this less likely.

This idea of striving to have your wins outweigh your losses isn’t new. It’s fairly ubiquitous across the world’s religions and philosophical traditions.

But I think it’s especially important to remember in the context of Stoicism, because the ideals that the ancient Stoics promoted can often seem unattainable.

It’s easy to imagine Aurelius, Seneca, and their peers as disinterested superhumans who lived lives of total control. And this can leave the modern Stoic aspirant feeling discouraged. The core texts of Stoicism set lofty goals for their readers, and these can seem all the loftier with the sheer volume of available aggravations, pleasures, and imagined terrors that the modern world offers.

Speaking for myself, I expect to spend my life falling short of the principles of Stoicism. I imagine the same can be said about many of the philosophy’s would-be adherents.

But for all we know, the same was true of the ancient Stoics. They had their own version of the modern world to contend with, and frequently bemoaned the distractions and obligations that came with life as prominent Romans. We can’t say for sure what they were actually like in life, or to what extent they were able to practice what they preached. All we really know for sure is what sort of standards they aspired to attain.

And that’s all that I, or anyone attempting to follow the Stoic path, can really do.

To aspire to live well.

To aspire to better actions, better inclinations, and better thoughts. I know I’ll never achieve perfection in any of these areas, least of all in my thoughts. But I’ll keep trying for as long as I’m able. I’ll keep aspiring. Little by little, I’ll keep getting better. 


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