Markus pointed out in his last post that even an emperor of Rome in it’s height, Marcus Aurelius, did not have the luxury of enjoying a profound attachment to his children–a thing most of us take for granted as a natural, even necessary, part of life.
Markus draws great inspiration from the stoics. As do I. One of the core understandings of stoicism–one shared with other wisdom traditions–is this: life is change; attachment to any one detail of life may result in a moment of intense joy, but must inevitably lead to loss; loss brings suffering. And this suffering is avoidable if we would choose instead to be attached to the flow of change, to the whole song of life, and not any one note.
This concept is a bedrock understanding of reality that can be a firm foundation for reasoning about one’s life. This aspect of reality has not changed since Aurelius’s time and is not likely to change in ours. But. It has it’s limits. Markus’s post is, to me, about finding these limits for one’s self.
One luxurious exception Markus allows himself to this core principle of his own stoic-influenced philosophy is being in love with his children: living with a kind of intense bond that would have been pretty much impossible in the past. To me, this is exactly as it should be.
In the Rome of 180 AD, one could reasonably expect most of their children to die young. Attachment was a recipe for disaster, grief and sorrow. In our time, especially within the core of civilization, one may experience not just a moment of joy, but a lifetime of it. We may well make it to our own death without suffering the loss of a child. It’s a risk each person has to weigh for themselves.
So shall we make a general rule of revising the wisdom of the past to better fit the changed world we find ourselves a part of? Perhaps we should just make it up as we go along?
Many would say no: there are sacred and immutable truths expressed within faiths and philosophies, and opening them to personal interpretation, picking just the shiny pieces without immersion in any faith is the definition of a dilettante. And a fool. Like a diet exclusively of cake and candy, it would be a very bad idea, right?
I have sympathy for this answer, because there are sacred and essentially immutable truths. The existence of our consciousness in time, and the implications of that as they relate to the experience of joy and suffering, is one such immutable. Like death, it is a fact of life.
But the only way you can tell such truths from things that are no longer true is by using all of the capacities and faculties we have at our disposal, particularly reason. Over time, with enough practice, one develops the capacity to accurately discern what is true for one’s self.
Even the truths we hold most dear only come to life as we gain understanding, not from the simple repetition nor logical manipulation of the empty words that package them.
Markus said in his last post “I fail by the standards of the old masters. I am vulnerable.”
Perhaps a more precise formulation would be: having studied the best answers that the wisest people across time have been able to derive for themselves, and having undertaken to labor with an honest heart at discerning the realities of my own life, I have–for now–set these standards of my choosing, to which I will strive to be faithful.
As emperor, Marcus Aurelius tried to improve the treatment of slaves by their masters. For his time, he was remarkably enlightened. But he did not abolish slavery in the empire. In his world, some were destined to be slaves and some masters. The world could be no other way. There were things about the reality that he lived within that are just not applicable anymore.
It’s a delicate line. There is positively a danger to merely skimming the dense material in the wisdom traditions. Wisdom traditions are rich with ideas that resemble drugs in their potency more than cake or candy. To be careless in one’s eclecticism is a bit like wandering into a pharmacy and helping ourselves to a few prescriptions because we like the way the pills look. On the other hand, the traditions themselves contain, often overtly, descriptions of the necessity of this attitude of using all our faculties to come up with a wise, realistic, and effective approach to life.
The best example of this I can think of is called the Kalama Sutta. Buddha explains that there are many ways to be confused: tradition, rumor, scripture, surmise, axiom, and so on. There is one way to find truth:
when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.
…when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.
Jesus speaks of this when he says, in Matthew 7, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”
Marcus Aurelius himself says in book six of the Meditations:
If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.
The truth is that which does no harm, lacking that; the truest does the least harm.
If you accept the freedom to choose, I believe you must also accept the framework that guides you in the effective exercise of that freedom: an experimental, open, honest, rigorous, empirical approach to what leads not to momentary satisfaction, but to deep, lasting happiness and the widest possible benefit. I hasten to add that the empiricism that I speak of admits evidence of the heart and psyche into consideration equally with evidence of the senses. As individuals, we each live in a reality mostly composed of our own mind-stuff–not directly accessible to others–it is absurd to think we can (let alone should) limit ourselves to the objectively verifiable fragments of that larger reality, since those fragments include relatively little of direct relevance to our lives.
This is how to forge your own truth from the raw materials our lives now provide us in such bewildering abundance. It’s hard work and there will be many errors on your way to proficiency. But it is the best way to find your own way in life.
In the specific case Markus talks about in his story, it is detachment that one must balance carefully. Detachment is a valuable and powerful tool, and therefore it should not be used without care and knowledge. Rather we should use it as a sculptor uses a chisel–with all the artistry and skill we can muster. For it will, just as indelibly, shape our lives.
Detachment allows one to live within the flow without being cast wildly about in the currents. But it can also be a way to avoid living. There will be plenty of time when we are dead for us to take detachment to the hilt.
It seems to me that if we are alive for some purpose, then that purpose necessarily involves living life, not withdrawing from it. Living life necessarily involves some attachment, even some profoundly deep attachments. This must balance the desire to avoid suffering, and drive us to focus on avoiding only avoidable suffering–in ways that do not prevent us from fully living.
It is quite true, in a sense, that “life is suffering.” That’s ok with me. I’ll take it as it is. Because it is just as true that life is joy. And love, and goodness and meaning.
If there is no possibility for suffering, there is no possibility for joy. There is no possibility for meaning or goodness. To the extent you are secure from suffering; you are already dead. I guess I’m too enraptured with the wonder of this gift of life to be ready to seek the type of enlightenment that transcends all suffering just yet.
A large part of what Markus and I want to write about, and discuss with you, is differentiating necessary, natural and unavoidable suffering, from unnecessary and foolish and avoidable suffering. Learning to endure the former with grace, and learning to avoid the latter as much as we’re capable of.
With his dwelling on “probably…” Markus alludes to the way he still clings to a bit of avoidable suffering, but you can see that he is aware of this, and working it out. It may be a price to be paid, but I consider his choice to pay it a wise one, considering it is such a small price to pay for the enduring enjoyment of one of the greatest experiences life has to offer–being a loving parent.