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On The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 180 CE) plus Ryan's The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016), which was co-written with Stephen Hanselman and features original translations and interpretations of passages from Marcus, Seneca, Epictetus, and others.
What does Stoicism look like in practice, in both ancient and modern contexts? You might think that eschewing the shallow, out-of-our-control trappings of fame and wealth in favor of personal cultivation would make one unambitious, but Ryan uses Marcus as a prime example of how to be a Stoic while trying to accomplish great things.
Unlike his key influence Epictetus, Marcus did not need Stoicism to exert his freedom while being a slave, though arguably Marcus's position as Roman emperor (which he did not choose) placed burdens on him akin to slavery. Marcus's concern was to keep his cool and not let his power corrupt him while enacting his duties, and he wrote the Meditations as a philosophical journal for his own benefit, though he usually wrote with care, using his best literary chops. Very little in the Meditations is (or claimed to be) original, so the value of the text is in its providing an exemplar on how to live the Stoic tradition, which is very inspirational to modern Stoics like Ryan.
Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan all engage Ryan in a very contemporary debate: Given what we've learned about psychology over the last 2000 years, does this method of basically repeating wise sayings to yourself over and over actually hold up? Is it desirable or possible to essentially overwrite our instincts with Stoic ideas about proper mental comportment? Marcus has specific ideas about nature and our place within it that would seem very archaic to most of us; does that undermine his viability as a model? Many modern Stoics advocate a pick-and-choose philosophy that tends to ignore issues like the metaphysical grounding for Stoicism, in favor of merely figuring out what works for you. Whereas Marcus took our duty and purpose as a given, and our job as to function properly in that role, Ryan offers more of an "existential Stoicism," where you choose or figure out what you want to make of your life, and then use Stoicism to do that as effectively as possible.
This is our third try to get a handle on Stoicism; listeners may find it valuable to start with our earlier episodes on Epictetus and then Seneca.
Read the Gregory Hays translation of the Meditations online or buy the book. A great secondary source that Ryan recommended for understanding that book is Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel (2001), which you can purchase or try this online version.
Buy The Daily Stoic or his other Stoicism-related books, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) and Ego Is the Enemy (2016).
You may be interested in hearing Ryan on EconTalk (on Ego is the Enemy and then his most recent book, Conspiracy) and giving more of his biography on the Practical Stoic podcast.
Continue on part 2, or get the full, ad-free Citizen Edition now along with the Citizen-only follow-up discussion getting more into the text of Marcus. Please support PEL!
Have you checked out all the other PEL Network podcasts? Hear the new Constellary Tales, Combat & Classics, Nakedly Examined Music, and Phi Fic.
Image by Charles Valsechi.
I listened to this episode and really enjoyed it. Ryan Holiday was great at articulating useful interpretations of Stoic positions and traditions, he really added a lot to the discussion. I wanted to offer a quick comment to the question upon which the podcast left off. Someone asked (sorry, I don’t know all of you by name/voice) basically, “What is the value in thinking about your kid dying in his sleep every night when you go to bed?”
I have some thoughts on this, having read some Marcus Aurelius and Seneca before. This exhortation is an illustrative example and I think it should be looked at this way, rather than “do this one weird thing, think about your kid dying, and reap the rewards.” It echoes comments elsewhere in Marcus Aurelius, in Seneca (and later in Montaigne, who drew heavily on Seneca and others) that you should constantly make peace with your life and put your affairs in order as though it were your last chance to do so.
As Seneca wrote in his letters, quoting Dido’s last words in the Aeineid, one would be well-advised to go to bed every night thinking, “I have lived a life. I’ve journeyed through the course that Fortune charted for me.” Viewing the present moment as the possible culmination of your life’s journey has a clarifying effect, which I’ll elaborate on.
I believe the goal is to obtain the kind of clarity and perspective that you would normally only have if you were facing the actual end of your life – but as the Stoics are fond of reminding us, we never know when that will be. So if you are putting your son to bed and you’re angry with him because of something that happened that day, but you think to yourself, “This might be my last chance to make peace and set things right” – then you won’t want to leave it until tomorrow, you won’t carry it forward. You’ll be more likely to want to resolve it or address it without delay.
A theme running through the Stoics is the idea that you shouldn’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today. Montaigne joked in one of his essays that he once stopped to write while on his way home because he couldn’t be sure he was going to make it home to finish his thought. I think the exhortations of the Stoics, illustrated by the example given above, suggest that you should keep in mind what is most important to you in life, and be less perturbed, less distracted, by the short-term ups and downs.
In the long run, you want to have been a good, loving father, patient, and kind, and if you thought you or your son were going to die tomorrow, that’s the impression you’d want to leave. So, if you imagine that every day is your last chance to “be your best self,” you’re more likely to emulate that – the Stoics repeatedly admonish us that we can’t put off until later our practice of the virtues that we think are worth realizing in life. Don’t be a great father, a good friend, or a loving husband tomorrow, if you could do it today instead.
I think the point of the guidance is to encourage us to train ourselves to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important in life, and that we have a limited amount of time and energy to spend. The “say goodbye to your loved ones every night” strategy is really a cue to remind yourself every day of what’s most important to you so you can prioritize it.
If you believed you were dying tomorrow, you would consider how to best use your time- making peace with loved ones, telling them how you feel, righting wrongs that are in your power to right, forgiving grudges. It would be a remarkably petty person who had one day left to live but still lost his temper and yelled at his son for not folding his clothes, or was unkind to his wife about sharing the TV remote.
You’d realize, hopefully, that these are little things that are far less important to you than the overall good and the value that these loved ones have brought to your life, and you’d be concerned for their welfare when you’re gone. You’d temper your minor frustrations and conflicts in light of the larger balance.
So, why don’t we think this way all the time, by default? Because, presumably, we feel that we have a lot more time. We get caught up in the little things, day to day, and figure we can resolve the larger things later.
I think the Stoic goal is not to fall into this trap. Personally, I have found it truly useful and applicable in my life to think this way, to have the goal of going to bed every night thinking, “I did my best, I’m happy with where I’ve left everything right now, if this were my last night.” There are numerous occasions where something has happened or something came to mind that might have disturbed me or made me upset at one time in my life, but I looked at it and let it go, because I thought, life’s too short to let this thing disturb me, to spend my time responding to this little annoyance.
Or, rather than worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow or next week, or next year, I content myself to know that I have done my best up until this point. That’s why Marcus Aurelius wants you to say goodnight to your son as if it’s the last time – because, with this in mind, you will say goodnight to your son with the utmost of love, compassion, and presence.
I think what we can learn a lot more from the philosophical tenets of AA as being a more approachable mantra based exercise. The proof is the pudding. Most people know their mantras because of their very natural integration into everyday life for a certain strata of people who lack the resources to have every flight of fancy they wish. Personally my friend was engaged to one of the wealthiest son’s in OKC. What I got from her stories is their family was more stoic than then some of the labors I met. Philosophy to me is something to use as strategy and not as narrative force for ones life. Life’s to curious a circumstance to approach it as a dance step all the time. Btw this podcast is wonderful I will become a Patron soon, I feel a little guilty sneaking water from y’all’s well.