The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–80) is consistently one of the best-selling philosophy books, ancient or modern. Countless readers continue to find inspiration from his notebook jottings. At the same time, this is not a book that is often taken seriously by modern philosophers. This is even the case with modern specialists in ancient philosophy. After all, how can Marcus’ notebook jottings compare with the depth and sophistication of work like Aristotle’s Metaphysics?
The error in that kind of negative assessment is that it implicitly assumes that Marcus was trying to do the same thing as Aristotle, and then failing miserably. But he wasn’t. Marcus’ aim was quite different. So, what was Marcus doing? His book Meditations is a collection of notes and reflections written to himself. It is comprised of comments on events in his own life, quotations from texts he was reading, and – most importantly of all – constant reminders of how he ought to act and what he ought to think about things happening to him.
In this paper I set out to accomplish two tasks. First, I develop a criterion as to what accounts for a satisfactory account of life’s meaningfulness. Second, I use this criterion to evaluate four accounts of life’s meaning, including Stoicism, existentialism, cosmological nihilism, and the theological purposive account. I argue that, in light of the criterion, that both cosmological nihilism and the theological purposive account are inadequate. While the existentialism account does meet the conditions of the criterion, it ignores important features of what it means to be human—the subject of what kind of meaningful life we are concerned with. Given that the Stoic account meets the criterion while correctly accounting for what it means to be human, I argue that Stoicism is a viable approach to understanding the meaning of life.
“It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present can ever be united.”
This pithy proverb on desire and suffering does not come from the Pali Canon or the words of a Kadampa master of the Himalayan plateau. It is a quote from Epictetus (50–135 CE), a Roman Stoic. Stoicism was a movement started by philosophers who would meet to teach and debate at the stoa poikile, a painted portico with pillars from which the school’s name derived, in the agora of Athens (a large public meeting place which was the center of cultural life). They studied logic and physics, but their primary concern was ethics. The goal was excellence, or virtue (arete) which they saw as synonymous with happiness (eudaimonia). Stoic disciplines aimed at removing delusion and disciplining our emotional life.
In the last few decades, Epictetus and his Stoic brethren have been having a renaissance, including a recent flurry of bestselling books like William B. Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Ryan Holiday, a publicist and marketing consultant who has recently turned his attention to “life hacks,” has written a series of recent bestsellers on Stoic philosophy, including The Obstacle Is The Way and Ego Is The Enemy, as well as The Daily Stoic (365 Meditations). Holiday has launched an online community of people working through Stoic exercises and learning together, and has even written about Stoicism and Buddhism.
What is the first business of him who philosophizes? To throw away self-conceit ([Greek: oiaesis]). For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn that which he thinks that he knows. As to things then which ought to be done and ought not to be done, and good and bad, and beautiful and ugly, all of us talking of them at random go to the philosophers; and on these matters we praise, we censure, we accuse, we blame, we judge and determine about principles honorable and dishonorable. But why do we go to the philosophers? Because we wish to learn what we do not think that we know. And what is this? Theorems. For we wish to learn what philosophers say as being something elegant and acute; and some wish to learn that they may get profit from what they learn. It is ridiculous then to think that a person wishes to learn one thing, and will learn another; or further, that a man will make proficiency in that which he does not learn. But the many are deceived by this which deceived also the rhetorician Theopompus, when he blames even Plato for wishing everything to be defined. For what does he say? Did none of us before you use the words good or just, or do we utter the sounds in an unmeaning and empty way without understanding what they severally signify? Now who tells you, Theopompus, that we had not natural notions of each of these things and preconceptions ([Greek: prolaepseis])? But it is not possible to adapt preconceptions to their correspondent objects if we have not distinguished (analyzed) them, and inquired what object must be subjected to each preconception. You may make the same charge against physicians also. For who among us did not use the words healthy and unhealthy before Hippocrates lived, or did we utter these words as empty sounds? For we have also a certain preconception of health, but we are not able to adapt it. For this reason one says, Abstain from food; another says, Give food; another says, Bleed; and another says, Use cupping. What is the reason? is it any other than that a man cannot properly adapt the preconceptions of health to particulars?
When men’s minds are struck with the opinion of an injury, they fall on immediately wheresoever their passion leads them, without either order, fear, or caution: provoking their own mischief; never at rest till they come to blows; and pursuing their revenge, even with their bodies, upon the points of their enemies’ weapons. So that the anger itself is much more hurtful for us than the injury that provokes it; for the one is bounded, but where the other will stop, no man living knows. There are no greater slaves certainly, than those that serve anger; for they improve their misfortunes by an impatience more insupportable than the calamity that causes it.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca