Stoic or Epicurean?

Epicurus
Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul. He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed. Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

I’ve been listening to the History of Rome podcasts of late and was pondering on some of the comments about the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was, before listening, one of my top three choices for best ruler of the empire. What better role model than the philosopher-king? Now, I’m not so sure that he managed both the empire and his own position as well as I had assumed. But that’s neither here nor there. What caught my attention was the narrator’s comments on the philosophical life of his times.

Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the unwitting author of the now-famous, inspirational work Meditations, a collection of aphorisms based on his own Stoic view of life I’m sure most of you have read (and if not, scurry over to your local bookstore and get a copy now).

I say unwitting because, as Wikipedia reminds us, he wrote the book (or rather books, because there are 12 separate parts which are now labelled chapters) for his own edification and guidance, not as a manual for others.  It was never intended for publication. It is fortuitous that after his death, the work was copied and shared and eventually handed down to us, despite the emperor’s misgivings.

Aurelius’ work was, as far as I can recall, my first significant introduction to ancient philosophy (Greek, Roman and earlier). Since then, I’ve dabbled in others, but didn’t start reading them in any comprehensive way until recently. Which is a shame, really, since they have so much to offer. For years, I knew more about Eastern philosophy than Western. Now I’m trying to redress that situation.

To fill in the gaps in my mostly autodidactic education, I have been reading a lot of ancient Western philosophy these past couple of years, mostly Plato, Aristotle and a smattering of later Romans. I just added a few titles to the reading list only this past month: Epictetus and Diogenes the Cynic, with Epicurus on the way. I suppose once I’ve finished with Rome, it’ll be time to turn to philosophy podcasts. I certainly need help interpreting what I’ve been reading.

What has always fascinated me is that many people in the days of the Roman empire followed and embraced philosophy actively, as deeply as many people follow religion today. True, it was mostly the upper class and elites who had both the education and the leisure time to study something so abstract. But philosophy wasn’t merely an academic pursuit: it had deep roots in their daily lives. It was practical.

Perhaps it’s in large part because Egyptian, Greek, then later Roman, pagan religions offered little in the way of moral guidance, and even less in answering those Great Questions that have haunted humankind since we first started to write. You know, the why-are-we-here, what’s-the-meaning-of-life, why-is-there-evil, what-happens-when-we-die sort of question. The questions that keep you awake at night, and wake you up at 3 a.m. to run around in your brain like little, frantic mice.

Or at least they keep me awake… maybe you already have them figured out.

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O tempora, o mores!

Nihil est incertius vulgo, nihil obscurius voluntate hominum, nihil fallacius ratione tota comitiorum.

Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote those words in the short book about a Roman court case, Pro Lucio Murena (For Lucius Murena). They mean, in English,

Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion, nothing more deceptive than the whole political system.” *

Cicero, Delphi ClassicsIn 63 BCE, Cicero successfully defended Lucius Licinius Murena on the charge of bribery or in Latin, crimina ambitus as a means to garner votes. The wealthy Murena had won his election as consul and the charge was filed by the losing candidate, Servius Sulpicius (also a lawyer, who would be elected consul 11 years after this trial).

It’s a fascinating document that says much about Roman history, politics and law. And like everything Cicero wrote, it’s full of quotable bits.

I came to this from watching, of all things, some episodes of the TV series, Boston Legal. What I find intriguing about the show is the legal scenes; the courtroom arguments, the banter in front of the jury, the way the lawyers approach each issue, and how they make their defence. There are some tricky moral issues raised in those scenes that are deeper than the rest of the show, which is really a soap opera set in a lawyers’ office (albeit with some funny dialogue).

So, my head full of ideas, I turned to Cicero on my Kindle, and started reading online what others had to say about this particular piece.

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Master Han Fei’s Wisdom

Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And, like many other sages, his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own municipal council.

Han Fei Tzu (aka Han Feizi) was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school that challenged many of the Confucian notions of government. In his short life he wrote 55 books – really short essays we would call chapters today.

This week, I pulled out my tattered copy of Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964) for another read. I hadn’t read Master Han Fei for quite a while, and, as I often am when reading the classics, I was somewhat fascinated at the relevance today of these ancient words. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of the books was called The Ten Faults, and here I reproduce the list of faults identified by Han Fei (as per Watson’s translation):

  • To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  • To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  • To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  • To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  • To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  • To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  • To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  • To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  • To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  • To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… and it’s almost scary how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my analysis of how Han Fei’s words relate to Collingwood.

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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

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