Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism’s Philosophy of Transformation
A beautifully concise description of Stoicism is Marcus Aurelius’ following line:
The universe is transformation, life is opinion.
What does this mean? Transformation involves change, the ephemeral, impermanence. For the Stoics, opinion means our judgements and attitudes towards the world. For example, when Epictetus says that it is our opinions that we have under our control, he is referring to our beliefs.
What then are we to make of the phrase? We can think of transformation at different levels: mind, society, universe.
What happens in our minds is not enduring. Whether it is a thought or sensation, it will not last. Recall the Stoic theory of perception, on this view there are two steps: an initial impression (thought, sensation) and then a further assessment of that thought, sensation. Often we receive an initial impression that is negative and the sense is that it will last for a long time. This is obvious with pain. The same mistake occurs in the context of pleasure as well. There’s an initial sensation and a judgement that the sensation will last. This is a problem when we grasp too tightly onto a given experience. For example we believe that a given pain is unbearable or that we cannot survive without a given pleasure. Recall the line from Epicurus:
Pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.
What is in our mind, whether it is pain or pleasure is impermanent. Our initial impressions, whether they are thoughts or sensations, will come and go.
The universe is transformation. Planets have come and gone. This universe will likely be extinguished in a heat death at some point. It is impermanent.
Our societies change. Fashions, countries, and complete histories are forgotten. Consider Marcus Aurelius’ line:
Look at their minds, the nature of their thought and what they seek or avoid. And see how, just as drifting sands constantly overlay the previous sand, so in our lives what we once did is very quickly covered over by subsequent layers.
The theme of all this is that both the meaningless and meaningful will fall away. From this perspective what is important can seem more so, what is not may grab our attention less.
Social status may seem more empty over time. Recall Marcus Aurelius’ line on fame:
What then is worth being valued? To be received with clapping of hands? No. Neither must we value the clapping of tongues, for the praise which comes from the many is a clapping of tongues.
Yet our loved ones, our projects are really things we only interact with once. Our friends and family may become more important to us. Injustice more important to fall back on. Remember, the Stoics recognized that humans were deeply social beings by nature. Getting our social relations right to the extent that we can becomes more important.
At the same time, we can recognize that they are impermanent. People we loved will change.
At a microlevel, our own minds are wells of transformation. At the larger levels, too everything will fall away.
At three levels, the universe, society, and our minds, transformation permeates. It’s omnipresent.
And yet life is opinion, in the words of Nas, “Life is what you make it.”