Tag Archives: philosophy

Review 10: Meditations

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I don’t read a lot of philosophy. I’m not sure why, since philosophy is really the province of the Liberal Arts graduate, and that’s what I am. Even worse, I was a political science major, and pol-sci is really just applied philosophy. You ask yourself questions like, “What is man’s obligation to man?” and “How can a society best benefit everyone involved in it?” and the next thing you know it’s three in the morning and you’re on your twelfth cup of Denny’s coffee.

Arguing the meaning of life in a diner, however, isn’t considered to be “real” philosophy. Philosophy these says means making up your own lexicon, creating words to describe concepts that you have spun out of the rhetorical ether – or, in philosophical terminology, “just made up.” So you get phrases in modern philosophy that go on for pages and pages, and have so many recursive clauses that you wind up having to go back to the beginning just to figure out where you left off.

So, if you’re like me – and it’s not impossible that you are – and you don’t feel like delving into the murkiest depths of intellectual waters, I can solidly recommend Marcus Aurelius’ immortal Meditations. There is no beginning, there is no end – you can open up the book anywhere, read for a while, and then put it down.

Written back in the 2nd century, Meditations is a collection of Marcus’ thoughts on life, existence, and how to be a good and moral man. Some of those observations are long, a page or two, but most of them are just a few lines. It’s kind of as though Marcus was hanging out at his camp in Carnuntum and he had a Thought. “Pen!” he would yell, “and paper!” He’d scribble his idea down and put it away to be filed away later. Whether he had any great plans for this collection of ideas, we’ll never know. He was an Emperor, of course, and it’s pretty normal for Emperors to want to make themselves look brilliant in history. But, as you read the book, you realize that Marcus’ mind wasn’t on history. Why bother, he’d say. It’ll all be the same in a thousand years anyway.

Death is ever-present in this text. When you start to worry about whether you’re living up to the example set by your ancestors, don’t bother – they’re dead and gone, and they couldn’t care less about who you have become. Are you always concerned with what people will think of you after you die? Why worry about it? You’ll be dead, for one thing, and beyond caring, and in any case whatever you have accomplished will be gone when the last person who remembers you is himself dead.

Marcus is very clear in his views on death: it’s part of nature, part of the ceaseless change which controls everything in this world. We came into this world, built from the atoms and essences of the dead who had gone before us, and one day we will return to that ceaselessly changing sea of Nature. Our lives are mere moments when measured against the vastness of eternity, and our powers are meaningless against those of the gods and the world that gave birth to us. “Remember that Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant,’ he said. “All the rest of his life’s either past and gone, or not yet revealed.”

In this way, there are some definite parallels between Marcus’ Stoic philosophy and Zen philosophy, though they’re centuries apart. Both Zen and Stoicism emphasize living in the present moment – not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. The only time in which you really exist is right now, and so it should be your only concern. Don’t let other people’s opinions of you govern your feelings – you can’t control them, you shouldn’t expect to be able to. You can, however, control yourself. “Will anyone sneer at me?” he asks. “That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer.”

Yes, this book is very quotable.

Where Stoicism and Zen would probably part ways is on Marcus’ reliance on Reason as a supreme governing power. He maintains that a man’s reason is the only thing that he can truly claim as his own, and that it should be ready at hand at all times. In any situation, presented with any person or object, the first thing that a person should do is turn his reason upon it. Figure out what it is, at its root, and once you know that, everything else will become clear.

I’m a big fan of Reason. We’re humans, and we’re bound to believe stupid things from time to time, but we’re also possessed of some very clever brains, and an excellent ability to turn those brains on to solving problems. But far too few people actually use those brains. We allow our passions to override our reason and end up doing stupid things to ourselves and each other. As hard as it may be, I’m with Marcus on this one – without reason, we’re not really humans. At best, we’re children, at worst we’re beasts. It is our duty to the world to understand it, without illusion or self-deception.

Frankly, I think Marcus would be very disappointed at how little progress we’ve made on this regard. I mean, it’s been nearly two thousand years, after all, plenty of time to deal with our superstitions and our illusions. On the other hand, I think he’d be flattered that his words had lasted so long and had influenced so many people.

It’s a great text, one that calls from the past to remind us of some very important truths – that we are here, now, and we are each in control of our own lives. We are possessed with a limitless ability to understand our universe, and to not use that reason is to waste the best part of ourselves.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikipedia
Meditations at Wikiquote
Meditations at Project Gutenberg
Meditations at Librivox
Meditations at Amazon.com

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Filed under Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, stoicism

Review 06: Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This was the first Pratchett book I read, and I’m glad of it. While it has the humor and satire that is inherent in all of the Discworld books, it also has something else – something to say. It was evident, even from the first time I read this book, that Pratchett had put some real heavy thinking into it.

This book is, as the title suggests, about gods. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What keeps them moving? Ordinarily, gods don’t like this sort of question. People who think are not what gods look for in followers. Gods want people who believe. That’s where their power comes from. Gods with many believers are strong, great gods. Armies of priests and worshipers attend to their every needs, the sacrifices are plentiful and their dominion is vast. A great God wants for nothing.

A god with no believers, however, is a small god, a mindless thought blistering through the firmament, searching with single-minded fervor for one thing: a believer.

What happens, then, when a Great God finds out that, while he wasn’t looking, he lost all of his believers? That’s the thrust of this tale, the story of the Great God Om and how he became a tortoise for three years. It’s about the difference between what is real and what is believed in, and how much difference that can make at times. It’s about fundamental and trivial truths, and how to tell them apart. It’s about eagles and tortoises and how much they need each other.

Above all, it’s something of, in my opinion, a statement of faith. Many people ask me if I am religious, and I tell them no. That’s partly due to this book and the thinking that it made me do. Spiritual? Sure. Religious? No.

This is, as I said, the story of the Great God Om, who discovered, about 300 feet above the ground, that he had been a tortoise for the last three years. Before this mid-air revelation he had been just chewing at melons and wondering where the next lettuce patch was. Suddenly, all the self-awareness of a Great God was put into his head, as well as the knowledge that he was probably about to die. Om had intended to manifest as a bull or a pillar of fire – something much more majestic and Godly – but for some reason, that hadn’t worked. He had become a tortoise.

Now, in the presence of Brutha, a novice in the Church of the Great God Om, the god remembers who he was, and discovers that he’s in a lot of trouble.

The Church of the Great God Om. There’s something to talk about. Many people believe, upon reading it, that it’s an allegory for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The Omnian Church permits no heresy. It permits no sin, no disbelief. Violating the precepts of Om and His Prophets can lead to death, in a lingering and painful manner. The Quisition cannot be wrong, for was it not Om Himself who put suspicion into their minds? It’s a tactic that has been used by many religions over the years, often to justify acts that they know their god would not approve of.

I don’t believe that Pratchett was trying to take a stab at the Catholics in this book. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence that the Omnians and the Catholics bear a few points of similarity. A rigid hierarchy, for example. A penchant at one point or another for extracting confessions by any means necessary is another. It’s all very efficient and effective.

There’s a problem, though, as is pointed out by Brutha late in the book: if you beat a donkey with a stick long enough, the stick becomes all that the donkey believes in. At that point, neither gods nor believers benefit. The only people benefiting are those wielding the stick. Instead of becoming a tool for inspiration, the church becomes a tool for terror. People do not obey their god out of love – they obey their church out of fear.

This is the kind of church that could produce the Deacon Vorbis, head of the Exquisitors. He is one of those men who would turn the world on its back, just to see what would happen. He is everything that is wrong with the Church and, unfortunately, it seems that he is in line to be the Eighth Prophet.

In other words, Omnia is not a nice place to live. Its church is vast, its god is small, and neighboring nations want to take it down a few pegs. It’s up to Brutha and his God to change the course of history.

As I said, there was a lot of thought put into this novel, as well as Pratchett’s usual hidden research. For example, Brutha is called a “Great dumb ox” by his classmates, due to his size and apparent lack of intellect. The same epithet was thrown at Thomas Aquinas by his classmates, and he was canonized less than a century after his death. Like Aquinas, Brutha is not dumb. He is simply slow and careful in how he thinks, and his measured pace leads him far more surely to the truth than the hot-headed and passionate men who march with him.

Some people read this book as an attack on religion. Others see it as a defense of personal faith. I think Terry had a story to tell, and perhaps a point to make. The beauty of books such as these is that they can be whatever you want them to be. For me, it came as a kind of defense of gods. Humans, the book suggests, need gods. Now there is a growing atheist community out there who disagree with that idea, and I can definitely see where they’re coming from. As I’ve said many times, I’m not entirely sold on the god idea yet. But the gods that are rampant in the Discworld aren’t the kinds of gods that the atheists and the true believers fight over – the omnipotent creator of Everything. They are gods who are controlled by humans, who exist with humans in a kind of co-dependent relationship. Humans need gods, and gods need humans. In its way, this kind of theology makes gods more… realistic to me. I can’t say for sure whether a god or gods exist, but if they did, I think I could live with this kind of arrangement.

What this book definitely is, in any case, is good. Very good. If you haven’t read it, do so. If you have read it, do yourself a favor and read it again.

“Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Laste the Godde Dies.
Ande this maye notte be noticed.”
– from the writings of the philosopher Abraxis, Small Gods

Annotations for Small Gods
Small Gods at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Small Gods at Wikiquote
Small Gods at Amazon.com


Filed under Discworld, fantasy, gods, humor, morality, religion, sins, Terry Pratchett, theology