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Marcus Aurelius and melancholy


To: Gregory G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Marcus Aurelius and melancholy
Date: 7 September 2005 16:48

Dear Greg,

Thank you for your email of 26 August, with the latest version of the beginning part of your dissertation for the ISFP Fellowship on The Art of Melancholy.

I enjoyed reading this. But you don't want to hear praise, you just want to hear the truth, right? :)

Seriously, there are some issues that I would like to raise (I hope I won't be repeating myself, I never look back at letters I've written, even a week ago) which may have a bearing on the direction of this piece.

Although I have not experienced clinical depression, I will risk take issue with what you say about depression, which does have a central bearing on your thesis.

As a matter of logic, there are two ways in which the assumptions underlying our naturally optimistic view of life might be 'reversed'. They can be reversed into pessimism, as you say here. But another form of reversal - arguably closer to the experience of pure depression, as opposed to extreme anxiety - is simply to see things without any colouring, negative or positive. One should not underestimate how devastating this can be. Our naturally optimistic view of life functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We take on challenges and succeed because we believe that we will succeed. This implies two things, a probability of success but also, crucially, that there is such a thing as 'success', itself a state with positive attributes.

Seen from this perspective, what is so striking about the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is the constant emphasis on seeing things just as they are, clearing away all false assumptions, consoling fantasies, so that the plain facts stand revealed in their gruesome nakedness. Remind yourself that this person pisses and shits. Or that the greatest 'pleasure' is just a momentary physical spasm.

The crucial difference from the depressive, is that Aurelius does have a reason for action: his duty, determined by his station in life. In between the times when duty calls, he puts his spare mental capacity to work on itself, improving and refining his own mental abilities.

In discussing the question of providence, I was surprised that you make no mention of Aurelius' agnosticism. As I have mentioned before (and I think you agreed) more than once, he argues, 'If there is a God then..., but if all that exists is material atoms then... Either way...'. You can't count on providence if there is no way of knowing if the universe is not just an accidental collocation of atoms.

I don't even know if Aurelius makes that much of living in accordance with nature. How can we know what that requires, if we don't even know what 'nature' is? All that his stoic knows is reason and control: control over one's body and control over one's own thoughts. Pleasure is nothing, but neither is pain.

Aurelius never gets there. The battle for physical and mental control is never won. That's one of the things that makes the Meditations such fascinating reading. Someone who was convinced wouldn't need so many arguments, would they?

Paradoxically, Aurelius delights in wielding his analytical knife. There is a kind of glee, the glee of a schoolboy cutting a worm into pieces to watch them wiggle. Not so much cruelty as sheer fascination. The world is full of fascinating things for the seeker after truth, and Aurelius saw more of the world than most.

I fully agree that the Meditations are much more than just a set of spiritual exercises. They are a chronicle of a real person's life. I would go further and say that they are a historical document which we enjoy because it enables us to enter vicariously into the life of a great historical figure.

What this is leading up to, I guess, is a question about how we can reasonably expect 'virtue' to relate to 'happiness' in Aurelius' world view. Reading the Meditations, I find it hard to picture the author as a 'melancholic man', partly for reasons which I have stated. He enjoys the sheer energy generated by heavy philosophizing too much. Like the addicted jogger or weight trainer, he gets high on mental endorphins. Nor is there any evidence of pain or struggle in the way he writes (you may disagree with this). It just all comes out.

Of course, it is another question for the reader whether there is any message you can take away about the relation between virtue and happiness. If you don't enjoy writing, if you're crap at philosophy - AND there's no God - maybe there's not much hope after all.

A point of interpretation: The quote which begins, 'Bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before...', ends, 'only the people are different'. As Timothy Sprigge emphasises in the chapter on Nietzsche in his excellent little book 'Theories of Existence' the whole point about the eternal recurrence is that it will be YOU who comes back, not merely someone ever so much like you. (On this point I disagree with Sprigge and agree with Aurelius.)

A point of 'fine tuning'. This is a piece about Aurelius. Of course, the context of Stoicism generally and great figures such as Epictetus will also be prominent. But once or twice it seemed to me as if you had momentarily forgotten that Aurelius is the one occupying centre stage. I don't think you need to alter the structure of your argument in any way. As I said, it's a matter of tuning - a word here, a phrase there.

On a practical note, there are words in brackets which refuse to translate on my Mac, so I just get this: (?????????) or sometimes this (π?????????). I have a Greek font, but the PC to Mac translating program refuses to reproduce any letter apart from π.

Keep up the great work!

All the best,