Wednesday, June 10, 2015


As I suggested in a recent post, we ought not to think so much.

"Thoughts are in a great measure masters of things, and which is more, 'tis in your own power to think as you please:  Therefore don't suffer Opinion to cheat you any longer.  Disengage from the Tyranny of Fancy; and then as if you doubled some dangerous cape, you'll have nothing but a steady course, a smooth sea, and a land-locked bay to receive you."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 12, Section 22, in Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), pages 231-232.

Here is another translation of the same passage:

"Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in thy power.  Take away then, when thou choosest, thy opinion, and like a mariner, who has doubled the promontory, thou wilt find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay."

George Long (translator), The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus (Second Edition 1880), page 201.

Marcus Aurelius does not use "opinion" in our modern sense of, say, "opinions" about the political or social issues of the day.  Rather, his use of the word embodies the key Stoic concept that the only thing over which we have control in life is our own conduct, which includes our impressions of (i. e., our "opinions" about) external circumstances (past, present, and future).  Accordingly, we should not let those impressions run riot.  The world is what it is.  Thinking about what might have been, what ought to be at the moment, or what may lie ahead is a waste of time and energy.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Christopher Meadows (1863-1947), "Saltcoats Harbour"

It is worth remembering that this is not a unique Stoic concept.  For instance, it is reminiscent of (to me at least) the idea of non-attachment that is found in Buddhism and Taoism.  Modern culture is constantly entreating us to devote our thoughts and attention to chimeras and fantasies (as well as to the media-fueled frenzy of daily "crises").  This is on top of our natural human tendency to worry about the past, the present, and the future.  Enough is enough.

Mind you, I am not claiming to be free of "the Tyranny of Fancy."  Nor am I lying at anchor in a calm harbor of non-attachment.  However, here's a good feature of the aging process:  things drop away; the absurdity and the emptiness of humanity's antics become more apparent with each passing year.  Peace and quiet seem to come of themselves, if one lets them (knock on wood).  "Peace comes dropping slow."  "Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night."  Or so one hopes.

                    Evening Quiet

Early cicadas stop their trilling;
Points of light, new fireflies, pass to and fro.
The taper burns clear and smokeless;
Beads of bright dew hang on the bamboo mat.
Not yet will I enter the house to sleep,
But walk awhile beneath the eaves.
The rays of the moon slant into the low verandah;
The cool breeze fills the tall trees.
Letting loose the feelings, life flows on easily;
The scene entered deep into my heart.
What is the secret of this state?
To have nothing small in one's mind.

Po Chu-i (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 175.

Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Like all sound advice, this is easier said than done.  The mind is a perpetual motion machine, isn't it?  For someone like Po Chu-i, the stilling of thoughts can occur out in the backyard at the end of the day.  However, for those of us who are inveterate daydreamers, sunk in reverie (the mind ever humming away), there is a tendency to think:  "If only I could [fill in the blank], then I could begin to live."  Thus, for example, the notion of the perfect place tends to haunt us.


You are in love with a country
Where people laugh in the sun
And the people are warm as the sunshine and live and move easily
And women with honeycoloured skins and men with no frowns on their
Sit on white terraces drinking red wine
While the sea spreads peacock feathers on cinnamon sands
And palms weave sunlight into sheaves of gold
And at night the shadows are indigo velvet
And there is dancing to soft, soft, soft guitars
Played by copper fingers under a froth of stars.

Perhaps your country is where you think you will find it.
Or perhaps it has not yet come or perhaps it has gone.
Perhaps it is east of the sun and west of the moon.
Perhaps it is a country called the Hesperides
And Avalon and Atlantis and Eldorado:
A country which Gauguin looked for in Tahiti and Lawrence in Mexico,
And whether they found it only they can say, and they not now.
Perhaps you will find it where you alone can see it,
But if you can see it, though no one else can, it will be there,
It will be yours.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (Heinemann 1947).

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"

But isn't thinking what humans do?  Isn't it in our nature to run through all of the possibilities, to consider all of the choices?  What's more, reading a poem involves thinking.  So does looking at a painting.  This post is arguably nothing but an exercise in escapism via thought.  I understand the point.   And I recognize that Stoicism, Buddhism, and Taoism are sometimes criticized for their "quietism."  (A wonderful word, actually.)

But, again, enough is enough.  We are too often in thrall to "the Tyranny of Fancy."  And "to have nothing small in one's mind" is, I think, something to aspire to.

                         Boats at Night

How lovely is the sound of oars at night
     And unknown voices, borne through windless air,
From shadowy vessels floating out of sight
     Beyond the harbour lantern's broken glare
To those piled rocks that make on the dark wave
     Only a darker stain.  The splashing oars
Slide softly on as in an echoing cave
     And with the whisper of the unseen shores
Mingle their music, till the bell of night
     Murmurs reverberations low and deep
That droop towards the land in swooning flight
     Like whispers from the lazy lips of sleep.
The oars grow faint.  Below the cloud-dim hill
The shadows fade and now the bay is still.

Edward Shanks, The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).

"Discharge Opinion, and you are safe; and pray who can hinder you from doing it?"

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book 12, Section 25.

Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)


Bruce Floyd said...

No doubt the stoical Roman emperor is right: we don't need to change the world so much as we need to change our opinion of the world.

I don't know for sure--the older I get the more ignorant I find myself, full of saucy doubts, if not at times utter confusion--but it might be that the "ghost in the machine" of humankind is self-consciousness.

The human predicament, vexing and anxiety-provoking, comprises, among other things, overthinking, which, to put it simply, is at bottom an inability to accept the world as it is: a place not designed for a self-conscious creature. The world ignores this creature, but we can't ignore the world. As Frost says we want the universe to cry out its love for us. The heavens are silent, skies stitched.

The below poem by Dickinson seems to suggest that as much as we'd like to make ourselves immune to heartache and all the ills "that flesh is heir to," we cannot banish ourselves from ourselves, except through madness.

I admire Marcus Aurelius, long to emulate him, but he is beyond my scope and ken. I have not yet learned to escape from being a child of our times, infected with all its woes and chaos.

Me from Myself -- to banish --
Had I Art --
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart --

But since Myself -- assault Me --
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication --
Me -- of Me?

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for your thoughts. I agree that the world and the times press upon us, and are hard to ignore. I'm not sure that Marcus Aurelius (and Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism) are suggesting that we can (or ought to) ignore the world or, on a smaller scale, what goes on in our own lives. I'm no expert with respect to any of these philosophies, but I do sense that the goal is letting go, non-attachment: keeping it all in perspective by recognizing that we can only inhabit the present moment.

Are we sacrificing what it means to be human by doing so? Are we sacrificing "self-consciousness" by doing so? I think not. But that's only my opinion. And I appreciate a common criticism of these philosophies: that their "quietism" amounts to a suppression of human emotion and empathy. I understand that view, and I can see that it has some possible validity.

And thank you for the poem by Dickinson, which presents the conundrum well. I don't claim to fully understand the poem (which is often the case for me when it comes to her poetry), but I'm not sure about "How have I peace/Except by subjugating/Consciousness." For instance, I think that the Stoics, Taoists, and Buddhists would say that finding peace is not a matter of "subjugating consciousness" (and thus surrendering what it means to be human), but rather is a matter of making proper use of our consciousness (and not, for example, driving ourselves to distraction with fruitless and futile thinking). One can be self-conscious without thinking oneself to death. But I am on very shaky ground when it comes to my understanding of this topic: i.e., The Meaning Of Life! I am not qualified to issue pronouncements. What do I know? Nothing. But those lines do trouble me. (And it is entirely possible that I am completely misreading them!)

As always, it is a pleasure to receive your thought-provoking comments. Thank you for stopping by again.

Anonymous said...

If we live, as Louis MacNeice says (see his poem "Snow"), in an "incorrigibly plural world," then nothing has more plurality than interpretations of this plural world. For example, here is Nietzsche on Stoics (yes, he does "philosophize with a hammer"):

You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power—how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live—is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"—how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature "according to the Stoa," and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise—and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves—Stoicism is self-tyranny—Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature?... But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to "creation of the world," the will to the causa prima.
(From "Beyond Good and Evil" chapter one, part nine)

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the different perspective. I've never known what to make of Nietzsche, partly because I can never tell whether he was lucid or mad when he wrote a particular passage. He certainly seems to be in a state of mania in this passage, with all the capitalized words and over-the-top rhetoric (which makes it wearying to read). It ends up seeming defensive. Well, I suppose that more than a few have opined that Nietzsche is himself an "extraordinary stage-player and self-deluder." Who knows?

Thanks again.