24 October 2011

Never too far off, vol2, part 2a, the one where Marcus Aurelius ACTUALLY responds to Hamlet

So, Hamlet has his litany of complaints.  Let's boil them down into a really compressed form:

Is it better to deal with all of the bullshit in life, or to just kill yourself.  It's definitely a better idea to kill yourself, but what if killing yourself sends you straight to Hell?  Going to Hell for all of eternity would definitely be worse than dealing with this crappy life for another fifty or sixty years, so, out of my own cowardice, I'll choose to stay alive in this world rather than risk eternal torment in the next.

Let's look at where all this torment of Hamlet's comes from, and how much of our life is actually the torment that Hamlet said that it is.  After that we should try to ascertain whether dying would actually be better than putting up with life.

How much of our life is bullshit, and how much of it is just disappointment that the world isn't what we want it to be?  When we look at this world, we see that people constantly do wrong to us. We also spend a good portion of our life doing wrong to others, whether we recognize it or not. We create an imaginary world, a world in which everything goes according to the way that we believe it should.  The Stoics would say that other people's actions aren't the problem, but it is far easier to blame them and their actions than to put ourselves into positions of responsibility for our own moral and spiritual well being.

This is a pretty harsh view to the modern mind, but it's also one of the only views that we're left with when we create a society that allows as much freedom as possible. We cannot be free to express our own views and opinions, and at the same time try to control others'.  There has to be a moment when we step back from a situation, and remind ourselves of how Marcus began his day: "Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good...can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly." (Book II)

One of the most useful elements of Stoicism is the practice of viewing others' actions in an impersonal and indifferent way, and coupling that with the idea that people do wrong involuntarily.  They do wrong out of ignorance.  They do wrong out of poverty.  They do wrong out of an inability to truly understand how they relate to others within the world.  Their wrongness reflects poorly upon them, as well as on those around them.  They don't do wrong to you personally, they would do wrong to anyone who was in your position at the time that they wronged you.  In reality, they wrong themselves far greater than they wrong you.

It is left up to each of us how we view our interactions with them, and it is not our moral imperative to do wrong to others, or to hold others in contempt because of their wrongness, but to try to do the right thing ourselves.

Okay, wait.  That sounds well and good, but Hamlet's Dad is dead, and Hamlet is sitting there with no one else.  His friends are untrustworthy, his mother is sleeping with his uncle, what is there to do?  What is the right thing to do?  What is the just thing to do?  What action best aligns itself with Hamlet's personal responsibility as a son and the Prince? This isn't talking about someone being rude, but murder and intrigue. What do you think he should have done in this line of reasoning?


  1. Interesting blog. With out addressing your direct questions as they pertain to Hamlet (my favourite of the Shakespeare plays) I would say in regards to human morality that stoicm is a somewhat elitist way of looking at morals. In the sense of saying that a person can't help themselves based on their breeding, and lower social station... but I can due to my well train Epictetus style brain that modulates my reactions.

    I think at the end of the day immorality is based on limited resources - food, luxuries and status labeling... It all fuels a heated and often ugly competition. Some people maybe able to turn the other cheek, but while their doing that duplicitous, intelligent people will be taking even more of what use to be there. That seems to be the essence of the Western world.

    PS: Found out about your blog via mutual friend Hamish C... Good stuff bro!

  2. It's interesting to look at Stoicism as an elite concept, especially when you look at it as a philosophical practice versus a way of thinking. In many ways the group that has best practiced Stoicism over the years has been farmers, and they have done so without ever having the need to be trained in any sort of Stoicism. The Stoics themselves reserved a great deal of scorn for the elites, especially those elites who confused their positions, authority, and wealth with anything resembling virtue.

    I'm not sure exactly what you mean by the thing about breeding and social station. Epictetus was a slave, and Stoics largely advanced the idea that there was a common brotherhood of humanity and that men and women were created equally. There's a famous section of Seneca's Epistles, Book 47, where he discusses the human equality of slave and master. Fate smiled upon one and not the other, but that reflects not at all upon the person, only upon Fate itself.

    Being the tutors of the rich and powerful, while always telling the rich and powerful that their wealth and power are meaningless took a lot of courage, which we all too often leave aside when confronting power in these days.

    Hamlet's always been a love of mine as well, even if he annoys the hell out of me. Thanks for checking out my writing, hope you enjoy it!