Sunday, August 26, 2007

(18) Duty

"Do not act unwillingly, nor selfishly nor without self-examination,
nor with divergent motives. Let no affectation veneer your thinking...
Moreover let the God within be the guardian of a real man...You
should stand upright, not be held upright."
[Marcus Aurelius, MEDITATIONS, Alfred Knopf, Everyman's Library,
1946, p.14.]

Comment: Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of the Roman Empire,
wherein no man below him would be allowed to hold him upright.
At the top of his society, the ruler, his only true recourse was to rely
upon his own cognizance. That is not to say that he did not have
counselors, but in the end all his decisions and the actions that
ensued from such were ultimately traceable back to him.

Marcus Aurelius was deemed a "good" emperor by historians,
albeit the list of most Roman Caesars before him would make
nearly any decent man look good. Still, Marcus had the good
fortune to have a good family and also an adoptive family that
tutored him in the craft of statesmanship. Included in this, he
embarked upon the study of Stoic philosophy--and became a
proponent of the Stoa.

Now this isn't to say that Marcus Aurelius was a pious do-gooder.
He felt obliged to carry out his duty as Emperor. And this sometimes
meant standing in judgement, making harsh decisions, and also
waging war to protect his Empire from so-called barbarians. The
Stoic idea of doing one's duty is not necessarily as we might see
it today, especially from a religious perspective. Marcus Aurelius'
duty was to protect the Imperium from perceived destructive forces
from both within and without.

Interestingly, at the other end of the social spectrum was a freed
Roman slave--Epictetus, who also became a leading Stoic during
the time of the Empire. He was a teacher of the Stoa, concentrating
on virtue and morality.

Perhaps it would seem that Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are
extreme examples of the Stoa. Curious, but both truly suffered.
The Emperor surely was melancholy, as it seeps through in his
Meditations. It could be he was not all that comfortable in his role.
As Emperor he had oft to make personally harsh decisions that
likely roiled in his mind. On the other hand Epictetus was mistreated
as a boy, actually crippled by a cruel master. But Fate ultimately
provided him a master who saw to his education and eventually
gave him his freedom.

These two famous Stoics had different duties in life, and the only
thing they held in common was to follow their duty as they saw it.

One's outlook on duty must somehow impact on their accomplishment
of such. "Duty" as the Stoa presents it is not necessarily full of a list
of "do's and dont's," such as you might find in religious prescriptions.
Rather, the Stoa only asked that one try to be virtuous and act
naturally towards one's duty. The Stoa saw few issues when it came
to serving one's State or Nation or even Empire. For the Stoics these
societal constructs were systems necessary for the benefit and
protection of humanity.

Today we might be more inclined towards Epictetus' role and the
duty involved as a teacher. It perhaps seems more gentle. Still,
there are other duties, rough duties that are necessary in this world,
that seem less attractive. Fate thrusts us in these categories of duty.
The concern, always, is that we face our duty steadfastly, doing such
as virtuously as we can.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

(17) The Will of Nature

"Learn the will of nature. Study it, pay attention to it, and then
make it your own. The will of nature is revealed to us through
everyday experiences common to all people...Carry this
understanding over to matters of greater emotional import
and worldly consequence...Learn to accept events, even death,
with intelligence."
[Sharon Lebell , THE ART OF LIVING: EPICTETUS, a New
Interpretation of the Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and
Effectiveness, Harper, 1994, p.35.]

Comment: Even if we are not familiar with Stoicism, much less
one of its leading proponents, Epictetus, most of us are familiar
with that old adage about "death and taxes." We can't escape
them, at least seemingly so.

There are tax evaders, especially so at the higher income brackets.
Occasionally such evaders are brought to justice, but that's
probably mostly a small dip in a deep pan. As for death, well
at the physical level it seems a pretty sure thing.

As for "events," well that depends on what we can or cannot
change. Epictetus hoped that we had the wisdom to understand
this. Some events are simply beyond our control--and we would
be better off to work through them and try to put them behind us,
if we can.

However, what about those situations or events that we can
alter or control? I suspect a lot of these kind of events, if we so
choose, can actually be deterred, prevented. In our own day we
perhaps have better opportunities to do this. Technology can
serve as a preventative or as a warning system; i.e., nature's
storms for example. Forewarned, we can move out of the path
of a hurricane--if we choose to do so.

We also can thwart medical disasters upon occasion. Our
health systems are focusing more and more on Preventative
Medicine. Today, too, we have Insurance whether it's for
fire or flood or accident or even to replace us, in that it provides
a certain financial security for family left behind.

So it would seem we are becoming more savvy when it comes to
circumventing the "will of nature." We still need intelligently to
accept certain events that are simply unavoidable; but, we are
also more intelligently learning to negate some events as well.

Nonetheless, we are only on the cusp of coping with nature. There's
no need to crow over our successes. Still, we have to consider that
we no longer have to assume a blank passive acceptance of events.
Such passiviity is now our enemy, if you will. If we are to make this
world a better place in which to live, we need come to grips with
seemingly impossible events.

For example, even death may take a turn for us. We now discover
that there have been thousands upon thousands of Near Death
Experience (NDE) reports coming down to us through the centuries.
We no longer consider the NDE as an "old wives' tale," but rather
now we have psychologists and medical personnel actually
examining this reported death event.

We still have to accept death on the physical level. A friend, a
family member, who has died is gone to us. Physically gone, but
maybe not spiritually. Do we really have to accept the "dead and
gone"? Many of us intuit that there is more to this phenomenon.
The challenge is *not* to be overwhelmed by death, but rather
cherish our hope and love for those seemingly lost.

In the end, we are learning to cope with nature in more productive
ways. We are learning to forewarn, learning to protect ourselves
better. And no matter our adversities, we are learning not to stew
in them; but, rather, we are evolving better coping mechanisms.
By using our intelligence, employing our ingenuity, we no longer
are totally enslaved to the will of nature. Most importantly, perhaps
the next step in our relationship, we are carefully beginning to
*respect* nature, learning how to work with her, letting her teach us!