THE STOIC SELF

Reflections on Marcus Aurelius

Ran Lahav

 

 

Marcus Aurelius belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which flourished for centuries in the ancient world, and which guided people how to live their lives. According to Stoic philosophy, we are usually prisoners of our psychological mechanisms: our desires, fears, greed, and so on. These mechanisms lead us to feel and behave in ways that are contrary not only to our happiness, but also contrary to our deep nature, and contrary to the Logos, or reason that runs the cosmos in which we live.

Nevertheless, we, human beings, have the capacity to overcome these psychological mechanisms. We can choose: to let these mechanisms rule us and make us angry and jealous and anxious—or to reject these mechanisms and accept in peace whatever happens to us. If, for example, I take a course at university and fail, I can curse and get anxious or depressed. But alternatively, I can choose to accept my failure in tranquility. Of course, I should study hard and do my best to pass, but now there is nothing more I can do, so why should I trouble myself? The event is not in my control, so why get annoyed?

If I listen to reason and accept my misfortune peacefully, then I accept the ways of the world, I embrace the cosmos and the reason (or Logos) that makes everything happen, I accept my small place in the universe. This, for the Stoics, is true freedom: everything happens precisely as I want it to happen.

The capacity to accept everything peacefully is not easy for us human beings, because of our automatic psychological mechanisms of anger and anxiety and desire and so on. But we have this capacity, and it lies in our true self. Our true self is the so-called “daemon”: the guiding principle, in our soul, that guides us according to reason. The Stoic goal is to live in accordance with our true self and to behave justly and peacefully, even in the face of hassles and problems and confrontations and suffering.

The problem is that this is not easy. It takes a lot of effort, exercises, and self-awareness to give our true self the power to guide us. And this is why Marcus Aurelius keeps practicing.

 

Now, If we think about this Stoic philosophy, we will realize that beyond the specific details, there is a profound vision here: that as a human being, what I usually think and feel and do—comes from my superficial psychological mechanisms, or what can be called our “perimeter.” But I also have fuller and deeper capacities in me that are dormant. I have the capacity for greater wisdom, depth, integrity, plenitude. I am more than what I think I am. And it is within my powers to awaken this greater self.

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