Episode 15: Marcus Aurelius and Jesus

In the last lecture, Professor Vervaeke focused on the Hellenistic Era and how it ushered a period of turmoil and cultural anxiety, where many people were expecting or were experiencing Domicide (a profound sense of a loss of one's home). Wisdom took on a therapeutic dimension in which the Philosopher was seen as 'the physician of the soul' and could cure anxiety. The Epicureans diagnosed the turmoil of this period as death anxiety. They advocated that to deal with this, one should live in acceptance of their mortality. They believed that death was a partial loss that one could cope with by using the time they were alive to construct meaningful friendships that aid and encourage one's cultivation of wisdom and self-transcendence.

However, there's more to the Hellenistic crisis than mortality silence. To examine this we looked at the Cynics and the Stoics. The Cynics held on to Socrates's pursuit of confrontation, and actively practiced it in a way that caused aporia in people.

They wanted people to understand the difference between moral codes and purity codes so that they could understand the extent to which they were operating by and depending on man-made, impermanent, cultural systems and values. The Cynics wanted people to be wary of what they 'set their heart on' and in most cases, to realize the impermanence of it. Zeno believed that both confrontation (the Cynics) and argumentation (Plato) were important. He also suggested that the problem is not what we're setting our hearts upon, but rather how we're setting our hearts; he shifted the focus to the process of attachment. This is at the core of modern-day rationality.


Read my post on episode 14 here.


In this episode, Professor Vervaeke talks about Stoic practices that developed in the post-Hellenistic era and the advent of agape via the Jesus of Nazareth in Ancient Israel. Watch episode 15 here.

The Epicureans tried to get people to understand how to reframe their thoughts so that they could have an insight (not just an intellectual insight, but an existential insight) that could change how they perceived mortality. The Stoics wanted people to pay attention to how they automatically assume and assign identities in their interactions and how this informed their existential meaning. The problem is most people let the co-identification process of assuming various roles and identities go mindlessly, automatically, and reactively. This makes it susceptible to distortion. The Stoics said we need to bring this process of co-determination, co-creation of agency, and arena into our awareness. They advocated for prosoche. Prosoche refers to paying attention to how you're paying attention; paying attention to the process of co-identifying. This involves learning to distinguish the event, from the meaning that we latch on to the event (not the semantic meaning but the existential meaning). We forget that there is no intrinsic value to most events and make the mistake of fusing the meaning and the event together. Because of this con-fusion, we often fall prey to parasitic processing. This (con)fusion is also problematic because it brings with it the assumption that changing the meaning would mean having to change the event, which is often not in our control. Although sometimes it is possible to alter the meaning by changing the event, the Stoics believed (much like the Buddha) that we don't have as much control over events as we think we do. Epictetus, one of the great Stoic philosophers claimed that the core of wisdom is knowing what is in your control and what isn't. He was aware that people often delude themselves into thinking they have control over an event precisely because if they lose control of the event, (by that logic) they will then lose control of the meaning. The fusion of the meaning and the event often leads to existential con-fusion. How does this con-fusion occur?


Think about Eric Fromm's being and having mode (see episode 7). Fromm was directly influenced by the Stoics. Stoicism helps us realize the distinction between the having and the being mode. As discussed before, the having mode is about having and controlling things. There is nothing wrong with this, we control a lot of things like water, food, air, and shelter. But our most pertinent needs are not needs that are met by exercising control, they are needs that are met by enhancing meaning. A lot of our needs are met by cultivating character, by growing and becoming a different person. The being mode is met by developing the agent-arena relationship, by becoming more mature --- it is a change that is not just taking place inside you but also in the arena you inhabit. This is why, for example, we don’t let little kids get married or drive cars or own guns; they have not become the kind of person that should function in those arenas yet. If one does not know how to separate the meaning from the event, they might be susceptible to modal confusion. For example, maturity refers to an agent-arena relationship and it has a particular existential meaning. But if one does not know how to separate the meaning from the event, they may confuse being more mature with having a car. This relates to Cynics warning about setting our heart on the wrong (man-made) things.


It is important to practice bringing this co-identifying process to one's awareness in a way that is transformative and developmental so that we can understand the distinction between events and the meaning of events. Pulling the event and the meaning apart is necessary to recalibrate one's sense of control and identity because although we don't have much control over the event, we have more control over the meaning (of the event) than we realize. How does one practice realizing the difference between the meaning and the event?


The Stoics would tell people to take a cup they really liked, use it on a daily basis so that they liked it even more, and then they would tell them to smash it. They wanted people to learn how to separate the physical thing (the cup) from all the meaning they attached to it. They also told parents to remember that every time they kissed their child goodnight, that they might not wake up the next morning. The Stoics wanted people to understand that they can do everything in their power to protect their loved ones, but they cannot ultimately control the universe.


This leads to the Stoic’s diagnosis --- they suggested that it's not mortality that makes us anxious, but rather, fatality. We tend to think that 'fatal' refers to something that has caused death. However, the root of this word is 'fate'. The reason fatality is associated with death is because death is where the two (the meaning and the event) inevitably come apart. Death is where the events of the universe and all the meaning and we attach to it separate. Death reveals the ultimate loss of agency by showing us how the meaning and the event are not identical.

The word 'fate' has two meanings. Many people refer to 'fate' as some sort of way that things are magically predestined by a supernatural force. However, we are more concerned with the way things are fated to happen, out of causal necessity. When we fuse the meaning and the event together, we become subject to the fatality of all things. Everything is fatal in that the meaning and the event/thing are not identical; if we attach the two then we suffer when they come apart.


The View from Above


The Stoics also engaged in a practice called The View From Above which Marcus Aurelius practiced when he wrote Meditations. This involves viewing the situation you're in from a 'higher' perspective in terms of space and time (first within your house, your area, then your city, then country, the continent etc.) Try this practice here. During this practice, one's agent-arena relationship is altered, and what one values and finds important radically transforms. Evidence from the construal level theory suggests that in practicing this exercise, one becomes more liable to pursuing more long-term goals, becomes more flexible, and more capable of rational reflection and self-transformation. Such practices are designed to bring the process of meaning-making into awareness and they allow us to pull the meaning apart from the event. Therapy often involves cultivating a kind of perspectival knowing that helps people understand that although they have very little control of an event, they can control the (participatory rather than semantic) meaning they derive from it.


Internalizing Socrates

Another practice Marcus Aurelius engaged in was internalizing Socrates. This refers to do with yourself, what Socrates would likely do with you. This is prevalent in modern-day cognitive-behavioral practices. Here's an example of what this could look like in therapy: Client: Everything I do is a failure

Therapist/Internal Socrates: Really? Everything?

Client: Well no, not everything Therapist: Did you get here successfully today?

Client: Yes

Therapist: What about clothing yourself and brushing your teeth? Did you do that?

Client: Well, yes...I didn't mean everything... 'Failure' is salient to the client in such a powerful way that it's misleading them about who they are. The job of the Inner Socrates/Therapist is to help the person understand that although 'failure' is very salient to them, it does not represent their understanding of what it actually means.

Another common example is 'everybody hates me'. The inner Socrates would question 'hate' and 'everybody' so that the person can understand the ways in which they're bullshitting themselves and uncover what they truly mean. The bullshitting involves confusing the event and the meaning, Internalizing Socrates involves taking the two apart. By doing this, we can avoid falling prey to the absurdity that is inflicted upon us by the fatality of things. Because if we learn to discern (in a perspectival way) the difference between the meaning and the events and appropriately calibrate our sense of control, we will alter our sense of identity.



How does this answer the question of mortality that the Epicureans gave a direct answer to?

Let's say person X has been granted immortality. What would they do? Perhaps they'd have lots of sex and eat lots of chocolate. But for how long until they get bored? Perhaps they would pursue more meaningful things, maybe they'd learn archery, read, and play basketball. Perhaps they'd get really good at those things. And then what?

In Julian Barnes' book A History of the World in 10.5 Chapters, there's a chapter where people go to heaven. They are under the impression that they have been granted immortality. One man practices golf until he has a score of 18. When he asks St. Peter what's going on, St. Peter says "well, don't you have everything you want?" . The man says 'yes but I just got great at everything and now I'm kind of done.' And St. Peter says something like 'now you get the point of heaven; the point of heaven isn't to live out your immortality, it is to make you accept your death.' This epitomizes the Stoic idea that our mortality is not what gives us anxiety because we wouldn't want to live forever either. Instead, what we want is depth; we want to have lived as fully as possible. Marcus Aurelius famously said 'everybody dies, but not everybody has lived'. People often think that this quote is about some sort of gusto for life that involves fame, money, and big celebrations. But it's not. There's nothing wrong with any of those things (given one doesn't start to identify with them), but Marcus Aurelius was referring more to a 'fullness of being'. He proposed we can get this fullness of being through practicing Prosoche and Procheiron. Think of this relates to Plato's idea of fullness and how even if it lasts for a moment it's enough; because it's not dependent on how long the moment lasts, but the quality of it. The way the Stoics approach this question of mortality is by turning to wisdom. They believe that people are seeking fullness, rather than longevity (not that the two are mutually exclusive) and how that can be made possible through a set of practices that afford wisdom.


Marcus Aurelius, through his Stoicism, was an exemplar of the Axial Revolution Legacy in a post-axial world.

Ancient Isreal



Around the post-Hellenistic era, a religion emerged in Israel that was deeply informed by the Ancient Israeli tradition (see episode 3 here). And so there is a sense of moving from the land of slavery into the promised land, where people co-created with God to reach this real-world/future. There was also a deep sense of da'ath (see episode 3) when someone went 'off course' they could be redeemed by prophets, Jesus of Nazareth was born in this tradition, and he was responsible for a radical transformation. Many people consider him to be God (metaphysically). While Professor Vervaeke is respectful of that, he doesn't agree with it. We are more concerned with how Jesus and Christianity transformed the Israelite Axial legacy.


As discussed before, Paul Tillich introduced the idea of Kairos -- knowing crucial turning points, in a perspectival-participatory sense (see episode 3). The Israelite Axial legacy believed that God would intervene kairotically to help people. Jesus represents this ultimate turning point, not just historically but personally. Because Jesus is a person, you can identify with him and that Kairos can take place in you (similar to internalizing Socrates). Jesus metaphorically referred to this as being 'born again' which indicates radical metanoia. 'Metanoia', here, is similar to the idea of awakening ('noia' means 'noticing' which refers to perspectival awareness, and 'meta' means 'beyond'). This refers to a radical transformation in one's identity and salience landscape. Being 'born again' in this sense refers to a new mind, heart, and modal existence.


What exactly does this Kairos mean and look like?

What could possibly be so powerful that it radically transforms your salience landscape and sense of who you are? The Christian answer to this is love. The problem is that we've trivialized 'love' because of the various contexts we use it in and how often we see it in popular media. For example, you may love your country, peanut butter, and your partner. However, these are all different kinds of love. We also tend to think of love as an emotion, which it is not. Love is a state, a modal way of being. One can feel a range of emotions in love (happy, sad, confused, jealous, etc), but love itself is not an emotion or feeling; it is a modal way of being that deeply influences the agent arena relationship.


The three kinds of love are eros, philia, and agape. Eros is where 'erotica' comes from, however, it is much more than just sex. It is the kind of love that involves being one with something. Philia is the kind of love that is satisfied through reciprocity; it is often what we feel in a friendship. However, the kind of love that Jesus incarnated as Kairos is called agape. Jesus claimed this is how God loved individuals; it is the kind of love a parent has for a child. Think of the love that parents feel when they look at their newborn. In most cases, it's the kind of love that has no doubt and is completely unconditional. It is through loving their newborn that they are able to turn them into a person. The reason you are a person today is that someone loved you before you were a person. Love (agape) turns non-person animals into moral agents. Christianity, with the idea of agape, changed the cultural fabric of the Roman empire.


In the next episode, we will further explore this idea of agape, how it changed the Roman empire, and how it contributes to our ideas of wisdom and self-transcendence today. Watch episode 16 here.

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