This is the second installment in my series on the wisdom of the Stoics. This time we turn to Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and philosopher whose philosophical acumen is largely overlooked. Here, Aurelius can be said to take Epictetus' counsel even further. Remember, Epictetus suggested we should be able to discern the difference between external events and internal reactions and in so doing, manage not to react to external events as they are beyond one's control (see previous post: The Wisdom of the Stoics Part One). Furthering this idea, Aurelius says that not only should one be able to manage not to react to external events, one ought also to be able not even to form opinions about them. Says Aurelius:
We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and not to let it upset our state of mind – for things have no natural power to shape our judgements.
Well, it's one thing (and not an easy thing at that!) to be able not to react to external events. But, not even to hold an opinion about them?! Well, contemplate this a bit... What constructive role does an opinion about external events play? They cannot change external events and hence are no more effective than reactions. This reminds me of a Zen parable:
Once there was a Chinese farmer who managed his farm along with his son and their horse. One day the horse ran off and the neighbors said, "How unfortunate!" The farmer replied, "Maybe yes. Maybe no."
One day the horse returned, followed by a herd of wild horses. The neighbors gathered round and said, "What good luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe yes. Maybe no."
While trying to tame one of wild horses the farmer’s son broke his leg. He was unable to work and couldn’t help with the farm. "How sad for you," the neighbors said. "Maybe yes. Maybe no." said the farmer.
Shortly thereafter, a neighboring army threatened the village. All the young men in the village were drafted to fight the invaders and many died, save the farmer's son, who hadn't been drafted because of his broken leg. People said to the farmer, "What a good thing your son couldn’t fight!" "Maybe yes. Maybe no." was all the farmer said.
There is great wisdom in the farmer's lack of opinion about events because he realizes that regardless of his opinion on matters, the universe is going to unfold as it will. (This says nothing, however, about the Stoic view of taking action in the world. Would they counsel against that as well or is there room for taking action in Stoic philosophy? That question requires another post for another time!) What was it Jesus said? "Not my will but Thy will be done." This is actually very close to Aurelius' counsel. Who would have thunk it, Marcus Aurelius and Jesus philosophical bedfellows?!
In sum, if we consider the counsel of Epictetus and Aurelius taken together, one might wonder whether Stoic wisdom simply amounts to a life of negation (DON'T have reactions. DON'T form opinions.). Certainly this is not all there is to Stoic wisdom, is it? In my next blog post I will answer this question, turning to one of the greatest Presocratic philosophers, Heraclitus, famous for the saying, "You can't step into the same river twice."
I am Dr. Riegel, minister at Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church. Enjoy my occasional blog posts here, which may cover subjects ranging from spirituality to psychology to ethics to social justice to church life and beyond...