Marcus Aurelius’ Questions for a Strong Mindset

Marcus Aurelius - Project Gutenberg eText 15877.jpg

What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’s soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s? A tyrant’s soul? The soul of a predator— or its prey?[1] -Marcus Aurelius Med. Bk V, chap 11

One of the most valuable exercises we can perform is to determine the content of our thoughts and the state of our souls.

With the four questions above, one of the greatest mindset writers of all time, Marcus Aurelius, helps us to determine if our mindset is strong or weak. 

Remember, strength of mind is a virtue.

  1. What am I doing with my soul?
    For Aurelius, this question means am I cultivating virtue, learning to be tranquil, understanding nature, conforming to it, and achieving the goals I set?
  2. Do I have a child’s soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s?
    In other words, “Is my soul adequately developed for who I am?” If a man, do I shirk responsibilities like a child? Aurelius would have believed in traditional gender arrangements. So, if a man, do I fear battle? If a woman, do I think as a man who is more willing to fight than to care for my children and home?
  3. A tyrant’s soul?
    A line in the gospels helps us understand this. Jesus said that his followers should not “Lord it over” one another as the leaders of the nations do. Do I require that I get my way from everybody? While this may make one feel very powerful when it works, the decisions of others are the worst of things upon which to rely. Can you have virtue and tranquility if you possess the soul of a tyrant? Can you even have strength?
  4. The soul of a predator or its prey?
    This is particularly helpful in a culture that seems to reward behaviors of submission and retreat.[2] People don’t want to be weak and often to mask weaknesses will engage in self-destructive rather than self-constructive behaviors. Are you a predator that overcomes obstacles to seek the good? Or are you the prey that waits for problems to come your way? Are you bold as a lion or do you refuse to move forward because you fear the lion in the streets?[3]

 

References

[1] Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1357-1359). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2]

 

[3] See Proverbs 22:13 and 28:1.

How-To Even

Previously, in the formerly current year, many people expressed their inability to even.

Here are two examples pulled from a quick twitter search for the phrase:

In this tweet, we read about a woman who is having an eye-brow problem and cannot even because of it.

 

In this tweet, an anonymous wo/man, who appears to protest ‘man-spreading’, ‘can’t even’ at the prospect of a Trump presidency. It’s hard to imagine the hysterics this individual is currently experiencing.

But I submit to you that you can. You can even. And here’s how:

  1. Stop publicly emoting about your inability to even. Simply note the emotion and ask, “How can I even solve this problem?”
  2. Write down what you will even do fifteen times a day, “I, so and so, will even do ‘X’.”
  3. Actually, start to even do the thing.

In three easy steps even you can even.

All sarcasm aside, it is certainly the case that saying “I can’t even” does affect how you think and act by effecting in you a static mindset or an ‘entity identity’. With your mindset so enslaved to that identity, your perceptions are aligned to reality in a fashion that no longer allows you to change.

 

What is my calling?

Briefly, Jesus outlines the calling for every Christian here:

Mark 12:29-31 ESV Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (30) And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (31) The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This isn’t a very specific answer, but it’s a very significant one.

It’s in response to Jesus being asked what the most important part of the law is. Why would somebody ask that? Because they’re hoping to trip Jesus up or they’re hoping for some sort of permission or endorsement of their current way of life. In the case of the Israelites of Jesus’ day, they were looking for laws connected to overthrowing the Romans or perhaps gaining public honor through religious ritual (Matthew 6:1-18).

But the most important thing, before you start looking to do some “world changing” or “personally enriching task” is to learn to appreciate God and to bring well-being to your neighbor.

Rebuilding the Foundations

Bruce Charlton has a good post about the nature of the spiritual battle in the west:

Modern Man is sabotaged by an evil metaphysics – in other words, it is our fundamental assumptions that undermine and subvert good living for us.

We therefore need to discover, first that we actually do have a metaphysics; secondly what it is; and thirdly we need to reconstruct it so as to become true – insofar as we can discover true assumptions (which is a matter of intuition, revelation, direct knowing).

What are some of our evil metaphysical assumptions?

  1. That matter is primary reality.
  2. That meaning is imposed on the world by our minds rather than intrinsic to it.
  3. That life is therefore meaningless.
  4. That the scientific method is the only source for the only kind of knowledge.
  5. That cause and effect is only material.
  6. Truth is real.
  7. Truth is desirable enough to lose something to find it or say it.

It will generally be found (at least at first) that even when we have revised and improved our metaphysical assumptions; we nonetheless tend (partly by sheer habit, partly because of past social training and the prevalent surrounding culture); we nonetheless continue to use the old/ wrong metaphysics.

What he says here is one of the fundamental problems of most protestant forms of Christian discipleship. The protestant view is typically that belief leads to gratitude which leads to sincerely good works. But in reality, we get beliefs right on the level of intellectual assent or at least, pseudo assent for social acceptance. But we skip the fact that beliefs of that sort must be experienced to be true in practice. In other words, belief in doctrines not only leads to, but comes from practicing Christian practices. As an aside, the word translated “doctrine” in the King James Bible means, as far as I can tell, something closer to “apprenticeship.” It’s training in a whole way of life, not just transfer of beliefs.

One might observe that the metaphysical assumptions I mentioned above are not explicitly Christian, and that’s okay. In one sense, every true thing is Christian. But one need not be a Christian to hold to true metaphysical ideas. The gospel entails and assumes all of these ideas and one will have a hard time practicing the gospel without something like them in their minds. But many who do believe and live like those assumptions hold are not Christians.

What have I left out?

To the Christian who Can’t

One of the saddest claims I hear from Christians struggling with suffering, sin, or bad circumstances is “I can’t do anything about it so I’ll just have to let God do it.”

It’s a claim that sneaks into so many contexts. Even questions like, “What are some helpful tips that could make us better listeners?” elicit responses like, “rely on God’s grace.” My guess is that churches have accidentally provided an environment where phrases with very little actionable content are considered wise.

There are several reasons this way of speaking has become popular. I’ve written about them here before.

But the ancient church simply did not see it that way, nor should we. Here are two passages from a wiser age:

The chief part then of our improvement and peace of mind must not be made to depend on another’s will, which cannot possibly be subject to our authority, but it lies rather in our own control. And so the fact that we are not angry ought not to result from another’s perfection, but from our own virtue, which is acquired, not by somebody else’s patience, but by our own long-suffering.[1] – John Cassian

 

And the consequence of this [the manner with which the demons became evil] is, that it lies within ourselves and in our own actions to possess either happiness or holiness; or by sloth and negligence to fall from happiness into wickedness and ruin, to such a degree that, through too great proficiency, so to speak, in wickedness (if a man be guilty of so great neglect), he may descend even to that state in which he will be changed into what is called an “opposing power.”[2] – Origen

Both of these men believed thoroughly in God’s grace and man’s moral weakness, but when it comes to Christians, they wrote that we are thoroughly morally responsible for our spiritual state. And this makes perfect sense. The Bible says that God’s grace enables us add virtue to our faith, it does not say or ever even imply that grace enables us to passively become virtuous:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.[3]

Now this is not to imply that I’ve attained great virtue or learned to fully take responsibility for my own spiritual state. Like Cain I tend to wonder why circumstances don’t make it easier (which is an indictment of God) rather than wondering why I haven’t made myself more adept at managing myself. But I do strive to make such a practice my own. And if I have a central message or theme as a Christian educator other than, “believe the gospel about Jesus,” it’s “take full responsibility for yourself, sort your life out, and then take responsibility for the world around you.”

I don’t think any of that is opposed to God’s grace, any more than Jesus telling people to “go and sin no more” or “the greatest among you shall be the servant of all” is opposed to God’s grace.

References

[1] John Cassian, “The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Edgar C. S. Gibson, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 262.

[2] Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 260.

[3] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994), 2 Pe 1:3–8.

Gary North on Training to Lose

Gary North wrote an article in 1980: Training to Lose, in which he observed:

The athlete has to train before he enters the race. He must discipline his body and his will, in order to be fully prepared for the exertion of the contest. The contest has winners and losers, and the Christian is not supposed to be a loser. This means that he must enter into the contest with self-confidence, enthusiasm, and a strategy for victory. He is not to spend time looking over his shoulder to see how far he has come from the starting- point, or how well his competitors are doing. He is to look straight ahead at the finish line, pacing himself so that at the end he will have spent all of his reserves. He should give the race everything he has– emotionally, physically, and strategically.

 

If we look at modern Christianity, we find very little of this sort of training for life’s race. Christians act as though victory is achieved passively, as it the race were not worth training tor, as if the hope of victory were not part of the motivating factors in running. If we were to regard modern Christianity as a training program, and it lite were viewed as a race, how would we judge the success of the program? Would we conclude that modern preaching has raised up a generation of skilled athletes who are ready for the competition? Or would we have to conclude that the program has produced a lot of overweight, under-motivated weekend joggers who would collapse half way to the finish line?

I fear that North’s criticisms are right on.

 

Intellectual Weakness

Nobody wants to be weak. Weakness leads to losing.

Weakness leads to resentment.[1]

One of the most uncomfortable forms of weakness intellectual weakness.

There are many ways to overcome this problem, but the first is to read.

The abysmal truth is that few read before or during college:

“The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works that are presumed to appeal to “book virgins” who will flee actual college-level reading. Since common reading programs are generally either voluntary or mandatory without an enforcement mechanism, such “book virgins” have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works. This was our conclusion two years ago: the lay of the land is still much the same.”

If you want to get ahead in life, at least ahead of yourself, read. If you read you can:

  1. Get inside the head of somebody smarter than you. (Have you written a whole book?)
  2. You can empathize more effectively.
  3. You can learn new skills.
  4. You can acquire great examples for action, thought, and virtue.
  5. You can avoid the brain rot of emotional eating or over watching television.
  6. You can understand the foundations of your culture and rescue you father from the underworld.

Footnotes

[1] For the Christian, weakness can be a form of power, insofar as that weakness is one that the Christian has tried to overcome. In that sense, Paul the apostle can speak of his preference for weakness. This preference is not, even in context, an excuse for low-effort, shoddy thinking, or laziness in general.

Effort Habit: Keep the Faculty of Effort Alive in You

William James on the Effort Habit

One of my favorite selections from James’ psychology text book is about developing an effort habit:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So it is with the man who has daily inured himself with habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James, The Principals of Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 130.

That little paragraph has been very helpful to me. James makes the excellent point that exercising yourself in self-denial until it becomes a habit for you to handle discomfort is an an incredible down payment on handling trials. I agree. Self-mastery of this sort is practically a super power.

Your Bad Habits are a Hell on Earth

He also notes later that “the physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally in hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to themselves while in the plastic state (James, 130).”

In the Christian conception hell is an experience in life and post-mortem. Even if you reject the existence of God and of eternal judgment, you cannot reject the existence of hell if you’ve seen the state people get into because of their own awful habits.

You must develop good, challenging, creative habits in for your mind, body, spirit, career, and relationships and you’ve got to do it little by little every day. And if you don’t want to, imagine for a moment the hell you’ll be in if you let yourself continue down the path of your worst possible self.

Develop Christian Habits

In the present age we American Christians have become soft. Too much comfort, entertainment, easy to prepare food, and soft chairs should have given up more time to read Scripture, contemplate God, improve our skills, perfect our bodies, and care for our neighbors. William James has a lot to say to the religious today: keep the effort habit alive. Being a Christian does not excuse us from self-denial, it demands it of us!

A Parting Quote

As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the scientific and practical spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education…If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count of waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation in whatever pursuit he may have singled out ( James, 131).”

Milton’s Psychology of Sin, Death, and Desire

One of the most horrifying depictions of the relationship of sin to death appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It carries with it all the archetypal horror that makes Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus[1] so utterly frightening. In the excerpt below, Sin, personified as a gorgonesque creature explains to Satan how they came to know one another in Heaven: [2]

 

“Hast thou forgot me, then; and do I seem

Now in thine eyes so foul?—once deemed so fair

In Heaven, when at the assembly, and in sight

Of all the Seraphim with thee combined

In bold conspiracy against Heaven’s King,

All on a sudden miserable pain

Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum

In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast

Threw forth, till on the left side opening wide,

Likest to thee in shape and countenance bright,

Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,

Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized

All the host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid

At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign

Portentous held me; but, familiar grown,

I pleased, and with attractive graces won

The most averse—thee chiefly, who, full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing,

Becam’st enamoured; and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret that my womb conceived

A growing burden. Meanwhile war arose,

And fields were fought in Heaven: wherein remained

(For what could else?) to our Almighty Foe

Clear victory; to our part loss and rout

Through all the Empyrean. Down they fell,

Driven headlong from the pitch of Heaven, down

Into this Deep; and in the general fall

I also: at which time this powerful Key

Into my hands was given, with charge to keep

These gates for ever shut, which none can pass

Without my opening. Pensive here I sat

Alone; but long I sat not, till my womb,

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown,

 

 

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest,

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way,

Tore through my entrails, that, with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew

Transformed: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart,

Made to destroy. I fled, and cried out Death!

Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed

From all her caves, and back resounded Death!

I fled; but he pursued (though more, it seems,

Inflamed with lust than rage), and, swifter far,

Me overtook, his mother, all dismayed,

And, in embraces forcible and foul

Engendering with me, of that rape begot

These yelling monsters, that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou saw’st—hourly conceived

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me: for, when they list, into the womb

That bred them they return, and howl, and gnaw

My bowels, their repast; then, bursting forth

Afresh, with conscious terrors vex me round,

That rest or intermission none I find.

Before mine eyes in opposition sits

Grim Death, my son and foe, who sets them on,

And me, his parent, would full soon devour

For want of other prey, but that he knows

His end with mine involved, and knows that I

Should prove a bitter morsel, and his bane,

Whenever that shall be: so Fate pronounced.

But thou, O Father, I forewarn thee, shun

His deadly arrow: neither vainly hope

To be invulnerable in those bright arms,

Though tempered heavenly; for that mortal dint,

Save He who reigns above, none can resist.”

 

Milton plays on three of the deepest fears of humanity: death or malformity in childbirth, rape, and incest, followed by two more deeply unsettling images: being turned on by your own children and being forgotten by your own father.

In case you missed it (the archaic language makes it difficult), Milton essentially has Satan think of Sin so obsessively that his thoughts become personified as a beautiful woman otherwise utterly in his own image. He then, in his deep obsession with himself and with rebellion against God, rapes her (as he must both possess and destroy that which is most beautiful to him) and she conceives a child (Death). After the rebellion and angelic war, all are cast into hell, and Sin is left to guard the gate, but in the process gives birth to her monstrous kin as he tears himself from her womb (was Scott reading Milton?). Her angelic nature provides her with regenerative abilities which cause her to recover utterly deformed. Death, overcome by lust at what remains of her beauty, rapes her again (and again, etc). She then gives birth each time to hordes of hellish hounds.

Now, why does Milton play on such deep fears? I think he’s trying to help the reader see how horrible sin and its effects are. On one layer, Milton is trying to help people see how awful evil is and so he associates evil with some of our most fundamental drives, those associated with reproduction.

On another level, Milton is explaining psychology at a profound level. He points out that sin starts in the mind, is entertained until it becomes deeply attractive to us, then to such point it that it moves from fantasy to reality, then to such a point that we have to hide it for shame, then to such a point that it results in horrible consequences (which lead to death!), finally followed by numerous equally horrifying thoughts, actions, and desires which we use to defend ourselves from the death/hell of our own creation.

Biblically, this makes sense:

  1. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire is for Cain and the word for desire there is used for sexual desire elsewhere in the Bible.
  2. In Genesis 4:7, sin is also crouching at the door, like a hungry lion or tiger, waiting to devour Cain.
  3. In Genesis 4:8, Cain refuses to take mastery over sin as God recommends, and instead murders his brother (the very person whose blessing Cain wishes to obtain).
  4. In the Cain and Abel story, we also read that after Cain resentfully dishonors God by killing a man made in God’s image, Cain is forced to, for a time, roam the earth, thus becoming a nomad like his brother despite his vocation as a farmer and not a shepherd. In other words, he becomes deformed with respect to his nature (not his visage).
  5. In Hebrews, we discover that sin is often committed due to the fear of death, rather than the fear of God. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
  6. In James, we read:
    Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)

Anyway, I hadn’t read Milton. I need to reread it. Attempting to “justify the ways of God to man” is a task perhaps no mind as great as his has undertaken.

References

[1] What I mean may not be entirely obvious, but the core is that Alien and Prometheus play on the fears men have of rape, pregnancy, and death by childbirth. In the first alien film, from an egg a creature attaches itself to a man, impregnates him, and bursts from his body. Then a cyborg, made in man’s image, becomes obsessed with the entire notion of violent reproduction and attempts to orally rape the protagonist utilizing a rolled up pornographic magazine. And so the progeny of man (machine) turns on man, and the progeny of man and the creature from the egg (the titular alien) turns on man as well. It’s a haunted house movie on the surface (people hiding from a scary creature in the shadows in a small space) but a disturbing psychological thriller at its core. Prometheus operates on the same level at its core, but is a sci-fi epic on the surface.

[2] John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 129–131.

Trinity Sunday: Thomas A’Kempis on

The doctrine of the Trinity, is meant to be, as far as is possible, an expression of something God has revealed in Scripture. Insofar as it is, indeed, revealed by God it is designed to do no other than encourage piety, virtue, and the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty in the gospel and in creation. Thomas A’Kempis, in the first reading of his classic The Imitation of the Christ gets at this beautifully.

“HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.

This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.

Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.” Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.[1]

This passage is, at its heart, about mindset. In the Bible, there are essentially two mindsets: the mindset of the flesh and of the Spirit. The mindset of the Spirit is the collection of attitudes, processes, and ideas used to approach life from a Christ-like point of view. Right ideas without right action is fundamentally anti-Christian mindset. A’Kempis here explains this.

References

[1] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 1–2.