The ancient school of Stoic philosophy has had a resurgence. It’s frameworks for thinking have long been used to aid cognitive behavioral therapy to treat anxiety and depression, so it makes sense that the philosophy is finding footing in a world that sees plenty of both. But it’s ironic that a school of philosophy known for thinking less of oneself is making a resurgence at a time where most tools on our smartphones encourage us to do the opposite.
One of Stoicism’s notable philosophers is Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors of Rome. His Meditations is one of the prominent books of the philosophy, but outside of the attention it’s gotten recently — thanks to it becoming a sort of self-help manual—the book has long been read by leaders of country, organization, and community. A fellow Stoic, Cato the Younger, was revered by many who led the founding of the United States, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Nathan Hale. If it wasn’t for Cato, the United States may not be how we know it today.
What’s unique about these two Stoics in particular, is that neither necessarily aimed for the spotlight. Cato was notorious for his lack of written work, and though Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are one of the bestselling philosophy books, the book’s name in Latin translated to, “To Himself.” This is because Marcus wasn’t writing to an audience. He was writing daily meditations the way one may keep a journal. It wasn’t until after his death that the notes were found and compiled into the written form that we know today.
And what did this emperor have to say? After all, this is an emperor who embodied Plato’s vision of the philosopher king. Surely Marcus was aware that if he applied his own philosophy, one where he states, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” the history books could potentially be kind to him. He wrote that all was fleeting, and that history would forget him as the years forget everyone, but one passage in the Meditations seems to acknowledge that he did have ambitions. Whether these ambitions were toward himself or the job he could do for Rome, I can’t say — I’m not schooled enough in the history of Marcus — but many do believe that he is a rare historical figure who lives up to the praise he’s been showered with.
Here’s what Marcus said about his ambition of being a philosopher — an ambition that we can all agree is large in its aim, like what we may chase after in our own personal lives if we are being honest. So, as you read the passage, change his use of the word ‘philosopher’ for your use of the word ‘writer, CEO, doctor, nutritionist, coach, journalist,’ or any other career you’re aiming and hoping to succeed at.
“This too is counter to pretension, that you have lost now the chance to live your whole life, or at least your adult life, as a philosopher: indeed it has become clear to many, yourself included, that you are far from philosophy. You are tarnished, then: difficult for you now to win the reputation of a philosopher, and besides your station in life is a contrary pull. So if you have a true perception of how things lie, abandon any concern for reputation, and be satisfied if you can just live the rest of your life, whatever remains, in the way your nature wishes. You must consider, then, what those wishes are, and then let nothing else distract you. You know from experience that in all your wanderings you have nowhere found the good life — not in logic, not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere. Where then is it to be found? In doing what man’s nature requires. And how is he to do this? By having principles govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil — the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave, and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these.”
There’s a crossroad in deciding our actions. The fighter pilot John Boyd called this a fork in the road of deciding “to be or to do.” If we decide “to be,” we may get showered with adoration. If we decide “to do,” we’ll opt away from this to choose what’s right — for ourselves, our families, our communities, and others.
The world doesn’t always recognize effort. And it’s less likely to recognize the effort that isn’t glamorous. Most of the importance that comprises our lives is this less glamorous effort. It’s the listening ear for a friend in need. Helping a colleague when it isn’t in your job description. Smiling at strangers. Sharing a few quarters with the man holding up the sign near the traffic lights. Putting your life and family in order.
And even if the world recognizes our efforts, it’s only temporary. No fame or status is permanent. All is equally fleeting. But what do we do when we realize the world doesn’t recognize our effort? Does it make us bitter and resentful? Do we give up? Do we stop going the extra mile for others? Do we put all our energy in an attempt “to be?”
If we chase recognition, what part of the bigger picture are we missing? What are we not seeing about our environment and the world around us if we’re so focused on ourselves? And how do we avoid the trap when most of the popular products on our phones, computers, and in the world encourage us to do just that?
I sure know that my brain doesn’t do me any favors when it comes to denying the recognition that I want. It usually gets in the way of a better good, and tends instead to focus solely on myself. The answer to this problem always lies outside of ourselves. As C.S. Lewis said, “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself.”