I recently purchased the new Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and had been enjoying it greatly until I read something I couldn’t agree with or even understand:
What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny. And when we describe things as “taking place,” we’re talking like builders, who say that blocks in a wall or a pyramid “take their place” in the structure, and fit together in a harmonious pattern. For there is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes. . . . Zeus himself [ ] would not have brought this on anyone unless it brought benefit to the world as a whole.
Marcus Aurelius says there are two reasons why we should embrace what happens to us. One is that what happens to the individual is (somehow) a cause of well-being and coherence of the world as a whole. The other is that “[i]t was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all.” Meditations, 5.8.
I simply can’t fathom the notion of some predetermined fabric of existence that we are now watching unfold. Did it happen already, in some distant time and place, and we are reliving it? Does the Man Upstairs, God, “Zeus,” or whoever, have source code for some grandiose software that is now running? And the age-old question–how does our free will interact with a scheme that is predetermined? I honestly just don’t get it. So I put down the Meditations and backed away slowly, confused and deflated.
As it happened, I had also been leafing through Seneca’s letters and recently came across something interesting in Letter 33 (“On the Futility of Learning Maxims”). Essentially, Seneca advises Lucilius not to lean too heavily on the wisdom of past thinkers: “The truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating.”
Here is a sobering reminder to absorb what we read and develop our own lines of thinking:
For it is disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a notebook knowledge. “This is what Zeno said.” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion?
The conclusion of Letter 33 made my rebellious heart sing:
Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.
If one of the most revered Stoics questions the notion of a single path to truth, then perhaps I myself can take a shortcut and bypass the entire issue of fate, predetermination, a “single harmony,” a “thread . . . spun long ago” and still glean much of value from other Stoic writings.
Yet something about this feels wrong, akin to “cherry-picking” ideas that support what I already believe. It reminds me of a lawyer who emphasizes the things that support her argument and ignores or downplays the significance of the things that do not. It’s perhaps not immoral, but it can be demoralizing. Regardless, there are inconsistencies within Stoicism; it is not a monolith; should I feel inauthentic or “non-Stoic” because I think Marcus A. was a bit off in one snippet of his Meditations (which he did not even intend for publication)?
I was further buoyed when I reread last night in Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne (see Chapter 12) that Stefan Zweig had extracted some general rules from Montaigne’s Essays, even if Montaigne did not frame them as such. One of these was “Be free from fate; be master of your own life.” And yet Bakewell highlights other characteristics of Montaigne’s work that comport with Stoic ideals, notably his refusal to despair about religious wars that raged around him and his commitment to rationality amid fanaticism and turmoil. Montaigne greatly admired his contemporary, the humanist Justus Lipsius, who wrote works “designed to revive ancient Stoicism”; according to Bakewell, the admiration was mutual. I have a goofy admiration for Montaigne (sadly, not reciprocated), so if he did not feel bound by fate, then that should be enough for me.
Do you have any examples of Stoic thought that you find hard to reconcile with what you believe, or hard to reconcile with what other writers have said?