The Emperor's Handbook

November 16, 2010

“Nothing outside the mind can disturb it.”

Good old Stoic wisdom

The perceptive man, profoundly curious about the workings of nature, will take a peculiar pleasure in everything, even in the humble or ungainly parts that contribute to the making of the whole…With a discerning eye, he will warm to an old man’s strength or an old woman’s beauty while admiring with cool detachment the seductive charms of youth. (70)

I strive to embody this, but would do well to remember it more often: there is never any reason to be bored if you’ve got an open mind and open eyes. Don’t get frustrated by traffic or long lines in the supermarket: there is as much of interest in those quotidian scenes and the people who inhabit them as there is in the Grand Canyon or an ancient temple.

Why Stoicism? Or Does Asking Mean You’re Not Ready?

Stoicism seems at times very individualistic. Sure, it enjoins you to treat your fellow man fairly and with justice, but there is no talk of love. I get the feeling that Marcus Aurelius thinks the ideal man is a perfectly self-sufficient one-man army, but is there no virtue in being dependent on one’s family for love? Is he just keeping his expectations in check, or does he truly believe everything is destined to disappoint us? If we shouldn’t put much faith in anything, if we should, when kissing our kid good-night, remind ourselves that he may die in his sleep and that we shouldn’t be surprised or disturbed–who are we? I have this issue with Buddhism, as well. All life may be suffering, but why should our answer to that be emotionless tranquility rather than overflowing emotion and greater, glorious suffering?

Stoicism is seductive–which man hasn’t at some point dreamed of being an island–but I can’t help worrying that, were I to submit myself to its rigors, I would be profoundly regretful of what I’d given up, as if I’d elected for a lobotomy. But maybe that just means I’m not ready for it.