“While we wait for life, life passes.”

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

On a day that needs supplementation to reach tolerability, what diversions do we have in our little town? Because we are home (as most of the world knows at the moment) to the gargantuaversity of Penn State, we have quite a nice little art museum here, and I took me there this afternoon. I spent some time studying Chinese and Japanese pottery. I was surprised to see that some of the Chinese pieces from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), based on the images painted on the pots, must have been specifically intended for sale to Europeans.

Afterward, a cup of coffee and a pastry called me to Barnes and Noble, which still exists for now, and once I got there, I was in the mood to read some philosophy. I picked up a book with the fairly ostentatious title A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry and wound up reading the second chapter, about the Stoic movement in Greek and Roman times.

According to the book, one of the ideas of Stoicism (as I’m going to rephrase it) was that the totality of the universe is holy, and is a kind of living organism. Because we are part of the universe, we share in this, leading to an idea that some people will find satisfying, and some will not. When we die, we return to that universalness, and in that sense do not die. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus put it: “Yes, you will cease to be what you are but become something else of which the universe then has need.”

The Roman writer (and Emperor, if you can imagine) Marcus Aurelius said: “You came into this world as a part; you will vanish into the whole which gave you birth, or rather you will be gathered up into its generative principle by the process of change.” This idea that we are a part of the larger entity of the universe is very close to later teachings of some branches of Buddhism, or if we turn to modern physics, the idea relates to some of what quantum mechanics teaches us about the nature of reality.

Do you see an obvious problem with this idea of “we are all the universe”? If I die but still exist as part of the universe, what exactly is this “I” that’s out there? The molecules from my body? Quantum particles? Will I still remember how to play the clarinet? Actually, that’s a trick question, as I already forgot that years ago.

I find the same philosophical question to exist in considering reincarnation, and it’s a question that drives much of my intellectual inquiry and is behind my fiction writing—what is a human being? However much I may be flawed, and hoo boy! don’t get me or my ex-wives started on that one, at least I am unique. We all are. It’s amazing, but we all are. If I become part of the universe but all my memories are gone and my personality is gone, how is that still me?

To the question of what happens when we die, Christianity has a much better answer. It’s you! It’s completely you! You’ll even get to wear a nice robe and learn to play a musical instrument. In terms of living in the here and now, however, I think Stoicism is more satisfying. When we ponder the weight and darkness that inevitably accompany life, and ask why this is, Christianity generally says, “Umm, we don’t know, but God had a reason.”

Of course Stoicism also has no answer as to why children die of leukemia, or even why our car won’t start the day it’s pouring rain, but it tries to teach us to live with what happens. The gist of the approach is to live in the present. The past is gone and does not exist. The future does not exist and never will, because it is always the future. The only time that exists is this moment. Obsessing over the past or future is a road that leads to unhappiness in both directions.

As Marcus Aurelius expressed this, “…ask yourself in regard to every passing moment: what is there here that cannot be borne and cannot be endured?” There is a deep truth here. If we can lay aside dwelling in the past, or looking ahead to the future—both good and bad—then we find that almost always we can bear what we are facing at the moment. And sometimes, the present is so sweet and good that it would be a shame to miss it. You might be looking at a Chinese pot with a gorgeous blue glaze, or you might be eating a flaky apple tart.

[The title of this blog is from the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who was tutor to the Emperor Nero.]

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