A Recipe for Sagehood

Marcus Aurelius's instructions

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

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🏛️ Theory

Marcus Aurelius once wrote a recipe for perfect action:

You have to assemble your life yourself—action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.

Meditations 8.32

The French philosopher, Pierre Hadot, notes that in this passage we can grasp the fundamental “Stoic attitude”. It’s a three-part recipe for acting well in the world.

First, focus on the present. Let the past be and the future come.

Second, see each instant as a series of choices. Don’t trouble yourself with the whole series, but the choice in front of you now. Life is nothing more than a succession of moments.

Third, welcome every instant and make every choice with a good intentions. Do your best. No one can prevent you from doing that.

If you’ve run long distances you may have had those moments where, in your fatigue, you realize how much further you have to run. You realize that you’re barely halfway. In such times, the “whole series” can overwhelm you – you have so much further to go. But this is an illusion. All you need to do is move forward in the present. That’s the only choice in front of you.

Likewise, the sage stays in the present, always moving forward with good will. They factor the past and future into their decisions as needed, but live in the present. In Hadot’s words “They pass from one graceful movement to another.”

Marcus Aurelius concludes the rest of his note with:

—But there are external obstacles. . . .

Not to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense.

—Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action.

But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself—another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.

🎯 Action

Try to get into the mindset where you see your life as nothing more than a succession of moments.

🔗 Links

🎧️ Michael and I discussed the discipline of action:

📗 The translation of Marcus Aurelius above comes from Gregory Hays’ fine version.

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