The Inner Citadel
A book by Pierre Hadot on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
No short review would do justice to this book, particularily by a novice in the history of philosophy like myself. If you want to know what this book is really about, please read it. I will merely touch on some themes here.
Hadot touches mainly on how these writings of Marcus Aurelius embody Stoic beliefs and practice. One of the main goals of Hadot's scholarly career is to take philosophy back to its roots as a way of life and spiritual exercise, and not just a vain exercise in dialectics. Indeed, the first philosophers belonged to schools very similiar to Christian religious houses, and philosophizing entailed following a strict canonical tradition already laid out by the school. Philosophy was not about creating an eloquent and elegant new discourse, but rather a pursuit of wisdom that leads to hapiness.
The Stoa are one of the more famous groups, somewhat noted for their lack of emotion. This was not the case. For the Stoa, cosmology governed their ethics: the universe was governed by reason, and man's goal was to assent to that reason, no matter what apparent evils it might allow. In a real sense, for the Stoic, the only real evil is moral evil, that is, the evil that one chooses to do. The realm of reason and free choice could not be touched by any apparent cosmic disorder: man is free to choose, and in that lies his dignity.
Marcus Aurelius wrote these meditations in order to remind him day to day the path of thought he had chosen as philosopher-emporer. Why, however, should a 21st century Christian study his mode of thought?
We should say that Stoicism is not compatible with Christianity in many respects. For one thing, we reject the Stoic cosmology of the eternal return and the absolute necessity of cosmic reason. This moment that you are passing through now, reading this blog on a glowing screen, in the Christian system is unique and infinitely important; God has willed it from all eternity, and it will never be repeated. It is caused by the love of a Personal Being who could have meant it not to be so. For the Stoic, this moment will repeat itself an infinite number of times due to the intransigent rule of the Fire of Reason.
Dostoyevsky posed an interesting wager: what if the eternal beatitude of all could be obtained at the sacrifice of one child suffering an agonizing death? Would it be worth it? For the Stoic, it would; it would be the law of cosmic fate. But this is not the God who will wipe the tears from every face. In the face of Hellenic resignation to the Fates, we can only defiantly pose our Hebraic roots that have given us the sentiments of the Psalms and the compassion of the Gospels. The Stoic system flirts with the inhuman; our philosophy is of the Logos who became human and took on our weakness.
So what use is this book, then? A good dose of reason and responsiblity can't hurt post-modern man, and Marcus Aurelius packs quite a dose. Also, seeing how the ancients did not see philosophy and learning as something in itself, but something that served a higher purpose is also an important lesson. In spite of my criticisms of their system, these ancient thinkers were still grounded in a healthy relationship between learning, tradition. and spiritual exercise. We, even though we think we have the truth, have a dysfunctional relationship with how we understand and wield that truth. And that makes this book well worth reading.
In the next few weeks, I will post some gems from this book that I think are well worth commenting on.