Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics (2006). 304 pages. Cost: Bought for $11.00 from Borders. Assumed to be written c. 170-180 AD. Edited by Martin Hammond.

Meditations was written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius as a journal, a collection of encouragements, aphorisms, and reflections to himself. The recurrent themes in his writings include the smallness and fragility of life against the immensity of time and the universe, and the meaninglessness of the distractions in our lives - criticisms from others, worldly goods, power - in that context. Whether we inflate or deflate ourselves, do we need to take ourselves so seriously, in the grand scheme of things? Consider again the smallness of our existence, he says!

How all things quickly vanish, our bodies themselves lost in the physical world, the memories of them lost in time; the nature of all objects of the senses - especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity - how cheap they are, how contemptible, shoddy, perishable, and dead: these are matters for our intellectual faculty to consider. And further considerations. What are they, these people whose judgments and voices confer or deny esteem? What is death? Someone looking at death per se, and applying the analytical power of his mind to divest death of its associated images, will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature - and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child. And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit.

Well then, will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here!

You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.

...there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.

Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice - and to vacating your mind from all its other thoughts.

Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about running round everything in circles - in Pindar's words 'delving deep in the bowels of the earth' - and looking for signs and symptoms to divine his neighbors' minds. He does not realize that it is sufficient to concentrate solely on the divinity within himself and to give it true service.

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

So display those virtues which are wholly in your power - integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?

Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature.

No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Book of Ecclesiastes

from the NIV translation:

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my work,

and this was the reward for my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless,
a chasing after the wind;

nothing was gained under the sun.

... the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;

they have no further reward,

and even the memory of them is forgotten.

Their love, their hate
and their jealousy
have long since vanished;
never again
will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

... What does the worker gain from his toil?
I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
He has made everything beautiful in his time.
He has also set eternity in the hearts of men;
yet they cannot fathom what God has done
from beginning to end.

I know that there is nothing better for men
than to be happy and do good while they live.
That everyone may eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in his toil - this is the gift of God.

... And I saw that all labor and all achievement
spring from a man's envy of his neighbor.
This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

... Naked a man comes from his mother's womb,

and as he comes, so he departs.

Ecclesiastes is such a fascinating anomaly among the books of the Bible and Tanakh. It wallows in existential despair, its ending feels less than conclusive, and its life philosophy debatably "Christian" (though maybe more Jewish). It hardly looks forward to an exultant eternal life, it leans far less towards a solve-all resurrection than to an agonizingly unreachable and mysterious God, who "makes everything beautiful in his time," but still leaves man to live an instant in time, in his predestined fate - his "lot in life."

When viewed in context, after 11 chapters on the utter meaninglessness of life, the concluding words in the 12th chapter, "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" feel much less like inspired, proactive worship than a helpless surrender, arising less from the gratitude for grace than from a lack of life alternatives.

Repeated strikingly in the book of Ecclesiastes is the phrase to "eat and drink" - to find whatever makes one a little happier in life and the present moment, to resign oneself to (or be genuinely able to) enjoy such things, even if one might be living more mindlessly in doing so:

... I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot... He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.

... A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God

...Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do... Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun - all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and your toilsome labor under the sun.

Are our lofty ambitions and declarations to love and serve in a great way really so meaningful, so achievable, so truly arising from an unselfish spirit? Some live with such grandiose visions of how they will direct humanity, too often at the cost of finding peace, first, in the cumulative snapshots of their daily eating, drinking, and satisfaction in toil.

... I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.

The wise man has eyes in his head,

while the fool walks in the darkness;

but I came to realize that the same fate
overtakes them both.

Then I thought in my heart,

"The fate of the fool will overtake me also.

What then do I gain by being wise?"

... For the wise man, like the fool,

will not be long remembered;
in days to come both will be forgotten.

... with much wisdom comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief.

... Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.

The heart of the wise is the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

An ending to Ecclesiastes like this - bleaker, unresolved, somewhat contradictory - makes more sense to me:

... Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.

Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,

but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.

So then, banish anxiety from your heart

and cast off the troubles of your body,

for youth and vigor are meaningless.