A Conglomeration of Disparate Thoughts
Neither pen and paper, nor a keypad was near, and because I was dead tired—too tired to get out of bed and grasp something—I let them flit away irretrievably back into the ether from which they came. Some of it was obviously drivel; but other, I’m not so sure. It felt like I may have had something.
As a young man, and living alone, I would not let a jot pass; however, as an older one, and something of a figurehead in a very complicated household, I have other priorities. One always risks a ruckus—which I can handle—but as I say, I was tired.
Eventually, I did get up; and wrote down the first stanza of three I had meticulously worked out. I retained the third, but the second was lost, so I wrote no more. By then I was agitated enough to not be able to sleep. This last poem would have been drivel—probably—but others, earlier in the cycle, would have been better. Alas, it all was lost. Even that single stanza I crumpled up and tossed.
It was not always this way. Not so much from a standpoint of believing everything my pen produced to be a treasure, as from the secure knowledge that time will winnow, I have sought to preserve the fruits of my labor—drivel or no. Besides, one might find there an idea worth going back to.
Now, however, with decades of experience under my belt, I am more inclined to think in terms of completed works or books and less of individual poems. My last book compiled individual scattershot poems, but I might as easily have let the winds carry them. It was assembled more to give myself a sense of accomplishment in a fallow period than anything else.
No disrespect is intended to the Muse, but I tend to value the arc of a larger work more than a poem suitable for printing on a single page. Also, I get tired (or ill) more frequently now than as a young man, so a loss of focus cannot be helped.
Since I could not sleep, I mused upon several things. One of those was the reading I had been doing during the day. I’ve been at Meditations by Marcus Aurelius in the Penguin edition—nearing completion now but I started midstream, so I will have to go back. I’ve already captured his gist, but because I find it worthwhile, I hope I press on with it. I attempted—years ago—to read The Meditations once before, in the G.M.A. Grube edition, but the translation didn’t “gel” with me, and I am much happier with Martin Hammond at Penguin.
Hammond is accused—in reviews at Amazon—of being too readable. One reviewer points out that Hammond’s continual use of the word “sin,” not indigenous to Aurelius, gives the book a decidedly Christian slant, which is wrong. I was glad for the warning, but I will not “switch out” my edition just yet. Readable is what I want; but more than that, Hammond seems a lot more clear than Grube—whether due from greater (or less) accuracy or (conversely) interpretation is something I’m not qualified to judge. It’s not that I have “small Latin and less Greek”; I have almost no Latin and absolutely no Greek. When reliant upon translation, it does not hurt to have more than one at hand, and—if I could find it—I have a third at my disposal as well.
Coming on the heels of reading about the destruction of the Temple—Momigliano on Josephus or Wills on Paul—it is a pleasure to come back to Stoicism. Stoic thought was once claimed as a forerunner to that of Christ; which notion has lately been disabused (I believe). Still, it is pleasant to grow more aware of what kind of thought was current in the day. Following up on my reading of Wills (see two days previous), James Bond Stockdale has a relevant comment about Paul: “Saint Paul, a Hellenized Jew brought up in Tarsus, a Stoic town in Asia Minor, always used the Greek word pneuma, or breath, for ‘soul’”, reflecting a “Stoic conception of a celestial pneuma [which] is said to be the great-grandfather of the Christian Holy Ghost.” (Stockdale’s scholarship is not entirely secure—but his essay was a great find after mention in a review on Aurelius.)
My introduction to Stoic thought was wealthy Seneca—I wish I could boast of having read more than I have—but the world intrudes. Count me a fan—however, because of the connection to Nero (and the wealth), an air of disrespectability or tawdriness clings to the biographical figure, however majestic Seneca’s prose (and I speak nothing of his plays or the Gourdification). Nothing of the sort attaches to Marcus Aurelius—or if it does, only so much as inevitable for a man in his position. He was emperor—which explains partly his appeal to President Bill Clinton.
Five years ago (or so) I found myself incapable of penetrating Aurelius (in the Grube translation), but a serendipitous acquisition of Epictetus helped me out through a “rough patch.” It’s always a rough patch for a poet, or nearly so, but this was a difficult time for a variety of reasons, and Epictetus helped me orient myself amidst adversity.
Chief among my complaints was—I wanted to study, but was obstructed due to both health and housing issues (problems in their own right) and Epictetus dealt with this head on: “You say you want to study,” he said (in my paraphrase of the lesson I received), “but the reason for all that studying is its application in the arena of life. It is like an athlete performing exercise in the stadium: the goal is not to keep warming up but to get onto the field and play the game.”
My reading was thorough, but I retain only in patches, so I am probably due to “revisit” Epictetus—which I have in the Everyman edition (Robin Hard translation). The philosophy—as Stockdale indicates—was immediately practical and applicable. Here is Stockdale distinguishing the biographical Epictetus from Aurelius:
Epictetus was born a slave in about AD 50 and grew up in Asia Minor speaking the Greek language of his slave mother. At the age of fifteen or so, he was loaded off to Rome in chains in a slave caravan. He was treated savagely for months while en route. He went on the Rome auction block as a permanent cripple, his knee having been shattered and left untreated....
Under the despotic emperors who exacted a sullen obedience from the Senate, Stoicism had been the religion of the opposition; indeed, it was the Stoic temper which made that opposition dangerous. Many chose to die as Stoics rather than live as slaves. For if one’s duty was done, then, as the Stoics put it, “The door is open.” It is highly significant that the philosophy of the opposition in the first century became that of the Antonine emperors in the second. It is also significant that of the two great Stoics of the second century one was an emperor, and the other, Epictetus, a liberated slave, whom the emperor [Aurelius] quotes with respect.
I wrote two days ago that Garry Wills provided a vigorous defense of Paul. Why Paul, you may ask. Here is Wills’ first paragraph—the hook that induced me to pick up and read his book:
Many people think that Judas was the supreme betrayer of Jesus. But others say Paul has a better right to that title. Judas gave Jesus’ body over to death. Paul, it is claimed, buried his spirit. He substituted his own high-flown but also dark theology for the simple teachings of the itinerant preacher from Galilee. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend William Short that Paul was the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” Bernard Shaw said the same thing in the preface to his play Androcles and the Lion: “There has never been a more monstrous imposition perpetrated than the imposition of the limitations of Paul’s soul upon the soul of Jesus.” This represented a triumph over the four evangelists (“good news bearers”) by what Nietzsche called Paul in The Antichrist— “the Dysangelist” (Bad News Bearer), a man with “a genius for hatred.” Shaw told a correspondent in 1928 that “it would have been better for the world if Paul had never been born.”
While I have read a little about the Stoics from a historical perspective, it is not till now, with the reading of Marcus Aurelius, that I am beginning to grasp the connections between Stoicism’s most well-known exponents—the connectivity in their thought. A book by F.H. Sandbach was edited by M.I. Finley, but it made almost no impression on me at the time I read it—possibly because my experience with the original texts (even in translation) was so scant and slim.
Regardless, even without philosophy, I must have absorbed something, because, reading Aurelius, it occurred to me, that the poem I posted in yesterday’s entry (but written earlier, and also found here) is nothing if not an application—poorly done or otherwise—of Stoic ideals to present-day concerns. I cannot vouch for its value—but if the poem has value, I expect, it will rather be because of that, and for readers of the present day who have little familiarity with Stoicism; but that its value will diminish with time. The Pillars of Stoicism—I expect—will remain strong, in light of which (or in the shadow of which, more aptly), a twenty-line poem which does little besides recycle that philosophy, will grow less and less relevent.
Mary Beard reviewed several new books out about Seneca in a recent New York Review of Books, under the intriguing title of “How Stoical Was Seneca?” A good question. She writes:
Seneca’s career might most generously be described as “checkered.” Born to a family of Roman settlers in Spain around 4 BC, he came to Rome, along with his elder brother Novatus, where both of them made their way up the social and political hierarchy of the city. Novatus really did have contact with Saint Paul [as opposed “to some flagrantly apocryphal correspondence between the philosopher and... Paul”]: his main modern claim to fame derives from his walk-on part in the Acts of the Apostles, when as Roman governor of Achaea he refused to prosecute Paul as the Jews demanded (probably more a sign of his distrust of the Jews than any fondness for Christians).
Seneca himself spent most of his life in the dangerous penumbra of the imperial court, combining the preaching of hard-line Stoic philosophy (renowned for its commitment to unadulterated virtue) with dynastic wheeling and dealing and a taste for the high life.
This was a world embedded in doublethink and doublespeak. Nero entertained his mother lavishly, gave kisses, and said fond farewells on the very evening he planned to kill her. The Senate voted to give divine honors to Nero’s dead baby daughter, although most of them knew it to be ridiculous.... And when the young Britannicus keeled over at the emperor’s dinner party, poisoned on Nero’s orders, it was only his sister, Octavia, who reacted “correctly” —she just went on eating. It was left to the hopelessly naive, untrained in the conventions of autocracy, to give the “natural” response and ask if the poor boy was alright.
Herod was a remarkable figure, thoroughly ruthless and odious. The mere fact that in the conditions of the age he could hold the throne from 40 to his death in 4 BC is proof enough, all the more so when it is remembered that he supported the losing side in the Roman civil war twice—first Cassius, one of Caesar’s assassins, then Marc Antony. His murders and executions cannot be counted. They included all surviving male Hasmoneans; his uncle Joseph (who was also his sister Salome’s husband); his second wife, the Hasmonean Mariamme I, and her mother; his two sons by her, Alexander and Aristobulus; another of Salome’s husbands, named Costobor; and, five days before his own death, his eldest son, Antipater.
It is almost hard to believe that out of such a world issued the philosophy of the Stoics, or the ethics of Jesus (to say nothing of faith). Perhaps it was necessary. Despite the veneer, none of us really evades life’s “dangerous penumbra”. Stockdale describes how a principle of indifference—to that which lies outside of one’s control—helped him survive tortures in prison (including vast amounts of isolation, considered the worst form of torture), derived from his readings in Epictetus:
“Station in life,” then, can be changed from that of a dignified and competent gentleman of culture to that of a panic-stricken, sobbing, self-loathing wreck in a matter of minutes. So what? To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment....
so also with a long long list of things that some unreflective people assume they’re assured of controlling to the last instance: your body, property, wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain, reputation.