“Love the art, poor as it may be, which thou has learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul all that he has, making thyself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.”Meditations, 4.31
Marcus is cutting us to the quick this morning. Stoicism is not a philosophy of financial wealth, nor of opulent possessions, in fact there’s a reasonably good chance that, as a Stoic that recognizes the lack of inherit good (or bad) in money or things, you may never have too much of either. And maybe that will make you go “awwwman” but in light of the holiday season and the overzealous consumerism that tends to get us all caught up in things related to income and physical possessions, I want to talk about money today—and Marcus has given me the perfect jumping-off point.
Marcus says “Love the art, poor as it may be, which thou has learned” he’s talking about philosophy, potentially specifically about Stoicism, about how it is a humble and simple thing to practice and ascribe to, but I want you to replace philosophy with life. Your life is a poor thing, a humble thing, a thing that could end at any moment and which is followed by nothing we can be sure of. Not heaven, not a cloud kingdom in the sky, not fresh life started anew, just darkness; just a return to the void.
We’re here, on Earth, going about our days as we please, and to fixate on the numbered nature of those days is to invite anxiety and fear for most of us. We don’t want to imagine that all of this, poor and fragile as it is, could end abruptly or at all. We put things in the way of those thoughts, we put things between ourselves and any extended thoughts of our mortality; building up an efficient buffer of distractions and focuses that are superficial and possessed of such slight value that all it takes for us to realize our own bullshit is to be alone for a long enough time with our thoughts and none of those distractions.
No doubt you’ve felt this truth. You’ve had a bout of insomnia while staying over at a friends house, everyone is asleep, your phone is dead, and you’re just lying there… thinking. Or you’ve had to much to drink at your own party and hours after your friends have gone home you’re sitting alone in a chair with a bottle of whiskey and a sinking feeling that you can’t quite articulate. There’s nothing present in moments like these that aren’t present in every other moment of your life, but there are a few things absent: the distractions, the noise, the mind games we play with ourselves to avoid seeing what’s always there: seconds dropping off a clock with dying battery.
And the avoidance of this recognition costs us a lot. We ruin relationships to chase our distractions, we sacrifice our youth, we pass so many interesting paths off the main one because we’re terrified of wasting time exploring something deep and genuine and meaningful… if we head off that way, if we chase after that thing over there that we think we might really like, we’ll never reach the goals we think are important to us… the goals we trust are at the end of that main path we’re on—we’ve gotta get there, we’ve gotta get to the goals.
I think when Marcus says “love the art… poor as it may be…” I think what we could imagine he’s talking about is whatever practice it is that allows us to cut through the cavalcade of illusions and distractions we’ve created for ourselves and ride around as part of so that we can see the truth: we’ve all got the same thing as everyone else, in the end… a single life and no amount of money or wealth is going to change what happens at the ends. So maybe we should trust that bit to whatever idea of god or fate or cosmic wisdom we ascribe to, and focus on the things we really want to do with our time… and make sure the things we want to do with our time are actually worthwhile, things that help, things that survive us, things that leave those we leave behind with the tools and strength to do the same for the ones they’ll leave behind one day.
I’m so in love with this philosophy of Stoicism because of what it has shown me I can do for others. I can help others to realize what I’ve realized: not just that we’re here to die, I mean, sure, in part, we are here to die, but mostly we’re here to live and to help others do the same. Death is just one moment, maybe less, of all the things we’re here to do… dying takes no time at all, but living takes a lifetime, and we’re so lucky we’ve got all that time, no matter how much time that is, because it’s all far longer than the second it takes to die, that we’ve got all that time to do good and to become good. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever encountered: that we’ve got such a long run-up to that final moment in order that we might spend it well… but we won’t spend it well if we spend all of it distracting us from the truth of death, the very thing that inspires us to avoid that shallow to go deep instead… to take those trails off the main path, to explore and to invest time in ourselves and others instead of in money and stuff.
Setting light, faint seen
Go forth, if right
To good death I deem,
But if good be dearth,
Same earth, same song
You’ll go forth still,
But you’ll go as wrong.
This holiday season I want you to face the reality of your mortality and I want you to see it as the only realization truly capable of empowering you to prioritize meaning in your life; the good sort of meaning, the sort the Stoics wanted us to have: the sort that finds us wanting to help others, help ourselves, do right, and do good. I’m not saying you can’t buy things, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy receiving gifts, I’m just asking you to look past the gifts, past the receipts, and into the eyes of the people in your life… look at them, appreciate them, do more for them than presents, be more to them than wealthy or accomplished, be more to yourself than driven and successful. Don’t be a slave to bosses or money, and don’t be a tyrant to others in pursuit of your goals… be present with your fellow human beings, be present with yourself, you’re here to die, don’t forget, but you’ve got a lot of good living to do before that last moment, and I know if you keep that last moment ever in mind, you will do a lot of good in your life.