Waves and Paths
Edited by Laurine Heerema
Sailing Through Life’s Choppy Waters: Exploring Stoicism In A Modern Context
Life and its trajectories are very much like the waves of the sea. It is not without the support of those around us and those who inspire us that we can navigate the waves and paths of life. There are periods of achievement and joy, which one could say are the ‘high’ points of our lives. Undoubtedly, there are times fraught with pain, fear or sadness. Or perhaps all three at once. Sometimes, just like when we gaze at the sea and the waves, no particular pattern seems to exist, our lives ebb and flow from happiness to sadness in a chaotic dance.
How can we navigate such haphazard paths that slide from seemingly positive situations to negative ones? Or indeed vice versa. For some schools of thought, it’s about “grinning and bearing” times of hardship, whereas other scholars maintain it is more about “reaching out” to those around us. Whilst these ideas might all be equally valid, it is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Stoic thinking more broadly that seems to provide the mechanisms for dealing with what boils down to “life”. That being all the waves and the resulting paths in their entirety.
Do we need the Stoics?
It was a Friday evening that Stoic philosophy unexpectedly helped me. It is a time of day that no one wants to find themselves in A&E. My doctor at the hospital had done some tests the week before, and she had phoned that day to tell me, “You really should make your way to the hospital’’.
For a year, I had been grappling with an insidious bone infection and my latest scan results were, to say the least, unsatisfactory. I had no choice but to go to hospital for an unspecified amount of time.
During these kinds of unexpected events, you, understandably, end up feeling entirely out of control. Often stressed to some degree, you grab whatever you think might be of use and throw it into a bag. In particular, I’d always take a book hoping it would keep me occupied long enough for what is undoubtedly an interminable wait in an NHS hospital. On this occasion, I took Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, having read and heard snippets of his contribution to Stoic thinking. A friend had recently lent it to me and reassured me that the Meditations were an excellent read due to its insightful ideas of how to live through times of hardship.
Unfortunately, my local A&E had become all too familiar in recent months. After waiting in an orderly queue at the front desk, a nurse will ask you, “What is the problem?” Ominously, I had been instructed to say that the orthopaedic doctors “were expecting me”. The nurse in front of me glanced at her computer and made a quick phone call. For a few minutes, I hoped that I was in fact wrong and that she would send me home. Much to my disappointment, when she put the phone down, she informed me that I would be called by another nurse at “some point” for “tests” and after this, I would “eventually” go up to a ward. This vague information of what and when something was going to happen was an all-too-common occurrence. Who knew how long I would be waiting and what would be done to “sort out” my dreadful scan results? It was then, whilst a hundred different scenarios were going through my head, as I sat waiting, that I pulled out the Meditations and started to read.
What did Marcus Aurelius say about the ‘waves’ of life?
There is a plethora of literature on Marcus Aurelius out there, with writers generally agreeing that his main influence was Stoicism (Kamtekar, 2017). In book I, for example, Marcus thanks his teacher and friend Rusticus for giving him Epictetus to read, a key Stoic philosopher (Kamtekar, 2017). Why, then, did Marcus feel the need to acquaint himself with Stoic thinking?
Far from being plain sailing, living as a Roman emperor in the second century A.D would not have been without its problems. This period in history is rather fraught. Shortly after Marcus became emperor, there was a war with the Parthians (Robertson, 2019). Following this, barbarians invaded the Roman Empire from the North. To add to the mix, there was then a famine, the River Tiber flooded, and, what is referred to as the Antonine Plague killed approximately 5 million people (Robertson, 2019). Thus, at the time, people were unsurprisingly dropping like flies. (Kamtekar, 2017). It is not unreasonable to say that Marcus therefore aligned himself with Stoicism to, perhaps in some way, provide him with the weapons to combat the obstacles that confronted him. Who, in any capacity, could cope in such an environment without having some mechanism of dealing with the fall out of life?
The chapters in the Meditations seem to follow no exact logical order, but Marcus repeatedly refers to the imminence of death. In book IV he says, ‘‘Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee.’’ In addition, scholars generally agree that he wrote the Meditations for his own ‘‘moral improvement’’, and to remind himself of the Stoic doctrines (Kamtekar, 2017). Generally speaking, Stoicism laments that “only virtue is good for oneself, that vice is the only evil’’ and everything else is basically out of your control as far as happiness is concerned (Kamtekar, 2017). This lack of control in our lives is constantly reiterated by Marcus, especially when he posits, “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your judgement of them.” (Aurelius, VIII. p, 47).
His wider argument being that we cannot control situations, but only how we respond to them and rather than rashly responding to them we should first consider the bigger picture. It is also about how we also interpret events. (Brown, 2016)
Bearing this in mind, how Marcus discusses change and time is also riveting. One could argue he was ahead of his time. In Book IV, he discusses how “all things take place by change” (Aurelius, IV. p. 32). Later in Book V he laments some things are coming into existence whilst others are immediately departing. However, these statements do not have depressing undertones. His discussion on change is portrayed in a positive light. He describes these changes as ‘‘continually renewing the world’’ (Aurelius, IX.. p. 50). He outlines the loss of things as nothing more than change, and that the universe “delights” in such changes (Aurelius, IX. p. 95). Why was Marcus “so ahead of” his time? If we consider the second law of thermodynamics for a moment, it states that the universe is becoming more disordered and undone. This is referred to as entropy. Although this initially sounds like a chaotic and terrifying notion, it is not an inherently bad thing. Marcus’s philosophy underlines this with his references to change and loss intertwined with progress. If we knew that things would never change, we would lack motivation to do anything. Thus, it is highly important that things come and go in life. That all forms of change occur, both good and bad. After all, the universe “delights” in this and it depends upon our overall progress as humankind.
What does this all mean?
The Meditations is not that long and by the time I was relocated from A&E to a ward I had finished reading it. I sat on my bed facing the window which overlooked a river. In this new and strange room, I came to a few conclusions. On a very basic level, when reading the Meditations, it seemed that compared to Marcus, I did not have it that bad in the grand scheme of things. I was lucky to live in times that were relatively peaceful. More importantly, the Meditations helped me to appreciate the present moment. For Marcus it is not the future or the past that pains us, but only the present (Aurelius, VI, p. 81). Too often, our minds are preoccupied by the future.
I, for example, gazed at the night sky that evening for some time, captivated by the shadows cast on the water from the city lights. It was mesmerising. I could have spent the entire evening worrying about the next morning and picturing the next day in all its scary clinical entirety. What would the doctor say? How long would I be here? What was my treatment plan? I could go on.
Instead, I appreciated the ominously quiet but tranquil evening. Change is part of the human experience. Although my current path had rather choppy waves, how I reacted to it, in a calm manner really made all the difference. I suppose my final revelation during this tumultuous day was reading a direct translation of Stoic philosophy, which made all the difference in thinking how I could best respond to such a rocky event. My family and friends were of course beyond supportive and said things like “it will be fine”. This type of reassurance just did not seem to cut it, at least not in the same way as reading Marcus line for line does as he refers to his ways of coming to terms with the various plights in life he was confronted with.
Time is finite and although tomorrow may be full of terrifying waves, if we respond to such waves in the right way, things don’t seem as hard to grapple with and it will lead us on the right path. Most importantly, embrace those Stoic figures that consciously or unwittingly inspire you and life will feel that it flows on a more manageable trajectory even during the hardest of times.
1. Aurelius, M & Hays, G. (2002). Meditations. New York: Modern Library.
2. Brown D., (2017). Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine. London, Penguin Random House
3. Kamtekar, R., 2017. Marcus Aurelius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,[online] Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marcus-aurelius/ (Accessed: 3 June 2022).
4. Robertson, D., 2019. Life Hacks from Marcus Aurelius: How Stoicism Can Help Us Knowledge At Wharton [online] Available at: https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-marcus-aurelius-stoicism-can-help-on-the-job/ (Assessed: 4 June 2022)
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