January 31, 2017 – Philosophy as Medicine of the Soul

“Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.9

January comes to a close. Hopefully, these meditations on clarity have, at some point, helped you refocus your attention away from the distractions. I have benefitted greatly from the self-reflection that comes with evaluating past and present experiences to help illuminate the words of these meditations.

A final thought on clarity before we enter into February; the month of Passions and Emotions. Again I will consider the word of Confucius as is written in the Analects. There is an interesting observation on self-governance through shame against other-governance through laws.

“Guide the people by law, subdue them by punishment; they may shun crime, but will be void of shame. Guide them by example, subdue them by courtesy; they will learn shame, and come to be good.”

When we think of forces outside of our control pushing us into action, we may feel a degree of coercion. Is our concern the punishment for our transgressions? Do we act for the good in the manner the law demands because of the goodness, or is it because of the fear of punishment? In turn, when we internalize punishment, and by that I mean when the only person imposing their will upon us is us, is it the case that we perform in a way that is good for the sake of the good?

Marcus does not want us to see philosophy as a law we follow. That we “return to” as a means of judging us as an Other. Instead, philosophy is something that serves to aid us when we become wounded. A compass to point us back towards our peak.

So we must ask: Why must we return? Simply put, we get lost.

When I think of returning, in this context, it’s inherently from something bad. Work is stressful, I’m behind on my reading for graduate school or I’m not honoring my commitments to maintain my home. But this is far too one-sided. We can also get lost when things are going well. My work projects are flowing, my workouts are becoming more efficient and, generally speaking, my suffering is limited.

Order calms. Fluidity can be deceptive. It’s easy to see our need for Stoic philosophy when we’re stressing. It helps alleviate. When things are going well, if we fail to give attention to those habits that facilitated the fluidity, we may find ourselves lacking the clarity we once had.

The word I would use in this instance is accountability. When we practice maintaining the Stoic mind we are asking a friend to remind us of the way of clarity. It is an example that allows us to govern our own thoughts and actions. Think of Stoic philosophy this way:

“The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.” – Aristotle


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