But what Aurelius was talking about was heartache, depression, grief, despair, and disappointment. He called himself a Stoic and Stoicism had long claimed and developed the idea that we could think our way out of the pains of living. There were lots of different ways they used to reframe life so it didn’t hurt so much. The big idea was that you are part of the giant machine of humanity and the universe and you shouldn’t be taking so seriously the specifics of what happens to little you. Stuff’s gonna happen. Roll with it. Aurelius tries to cheer up his own blue self, and you, thusly:
>For with what art thou discontented? With the badness of men? Recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily; and consider how many already, after mutual enmity, suspicion, hatred, and fighting, have been stretched dead, reduced to ashes; and be quiet at last.
But perhaps thou art dissatisfied with that which is assigned to thee out of the universe.- Recall to thy recollection this alternative; either there is providence or atoms… and be quiet at last.
… But perhaps the desire of the thing called fame will torment thee.- See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed, and be quiet at last.
Consider that the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this thy dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee.
This then remains…all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.
I’ve never really liked that about Stoicism. It feels slightly… disingenuous to me. Not that one shouldn’t try to view frustrating circumstances from different perspectives, but trying to hop back and forth from the universal perspective, where nothing really matters because the heat death of the universe blah blah blah, and the individual perspective that we have to inhabit just to function as human beings in a social context seems like trying to have it both ways. You can’t derive meaning and joy from the things you consider most valuable and then try to brush off their eventual loss with philosophical sleight-of-hand tricks. Some losses may indeed be too intense for a person to bear — but so what? The fact that we don’t ultimately matter should be an invitation to feel more deeply while we are here.