Tag Archives: Stoics

Indifference or something like that

Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other’s presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


I have a very pretty copy of Marcus Aurelious’ Meditations. The stoic message has  provided some succor to my mind over the course of my adult life. Although, lately I found the philosophy wanting; the insupportable  prejudices and limitations that we are all suppose to approach with the long view of historical relativism makes me impatient, and the connotations of a philosophy that is rational to the point of emotionlessness leaves me cold as I labor to seek warmth in my life.  I think I prefer to feel this life, this body, this day.

This is of course a gross simplification of Aurelius’ philosophy, which still resonates with me on many levels, I only bring it up to explain why I am so intrigued with the Portuguese poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa. As I read his strange and fascinating musings The Book of Disquiet, I am constantly brought back to Aurelius. There seems to me a direct connection and conversation between the two thousand year span. Pessoa’s meditations are of the disquieting push-pull of disconnection. Yet, as much as it might annoy Aurelius, if he debased himself enough to feel annoyed- which he wouldn’t, they read similar to me:

The truly wise man is the one who can keep external events from changing him in any way. To do this, he covers himself with an armour of realities closer to him than the world’s facts and through which the facts, modified accordingly, reach him. – The Book of Disquiet (94)

Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. – Meditations (Book IV, 3)

It’s like a street corner philosophy slam. Pessoa agrees with Aurelius that one shouldn’t confuse body with imagination, but Pessoa then says- to hell with body, your imagination is preferably sufficient. Live there. It seems to me a logical conclusion of Stoicism. Nothing can touch your soul. But wait -I forget, why don’t we want our souls to be touched? Aurelius might just ignore me and think I was a womanly pain in the ass for asking such a question. Maybe I am. But Pessoa is a pain in the ass too. He might look up from his inner reverie and see me for a moment.

Pessoa’s beautifully rendered “factless autobiography” in which he outlines his proud yet regretful removal of himself  from the physical world is similar to Meditations, but Pessoa’s meditations are of a modern profound disgust.

All this stupid insistence on being self-sufficient! All this cynical awareness of pretended sensations! All this imbroglio of my soul with these sensations, of my thoughts with the air and the river – all just to say that life smells bad and hurts me in my consciousness. All for not knowing how to say, as in that simple and all-embracing phrase from the Book of Job, “My soul is weary of my life!” – The Book of Disquiet (77)

Yet the capacity for sensation belongs also to the stalled ox…- Meditations (Book III, 16)

Where Aurelius is sublimating, Pessoa depresses the exaltation. But they end up near the same place. Somewhere on the arch they overlap. In a way, Pessoa is more honest in the inevitable difficulties and contradictions of any strict ideology.

There’s more subtlety in my self-contradiction (115)

Pessoa’s prose are so relentlessly sad and capitulating, I find them very uplifting and amusing. I accept that that just may be my macabre sense of humor- I can not compete with his haughty revolt against the physical world. Pessoa wins. But I do love him.

I’m one of those souls women say they love but never recognize when they meet us – one of those that they would never recognize, even if they recognize us. (101)

And he mocks me. That’s okay, maybe I’m one of those souls that men say they love but don’t, so we are equals, Señor Pessoa and I.

*Title from chapter 124 (Chapter on indifference or something like that)

Penguin Classics edited and translated by Richard Zenith

Take Me To The River

take me to the river and set my spirit free

My 17 year old son and I attended a performance yesterday afternoon at our college by Destiny Africa, a children’s choir from Uganda. It was delightful. There was one girl who reminded me so much of my 10 year old niece. Strange what similarities we can find in people whom are different in every obvious way…Eric thought that she possessed a sort of hilarious nonchalant seriousness, but her dancing, the way she snapped her head back and forth and moved with rhythmic abandon was infectious and wonderful.

I left in exceedingly high spirits which made me uncharacteristically loquacious in philosophy class. We were discussing Peter Singer’s rather extreme view of Utilitarianism. It seemed to me unrealistic (and therefore of no real utility) and…well, reducio ad absurdum. Also, his devotion to measuring “the greater good” by suffering alone is strangely negative and yet strangely common:  the imperative (found in many philosophies, religions and psychiatric offices) to eliminate suffering altogether makes one wonder if it isn’t perhaps a one sided look at life.

Later in the evening I took my youngest son to see the Yale Glee Club High School Festival. I wasn’t sure how he would like the choral music but after the first piece he was shouting “Bravo!” from his seat (not sure where he learned that). He told me he particularly loved how no one voice was distinguishable, it was the single sound of all the voices coming together that amazed him. For the last number along with the New Haven High School Glee club they sang a rousing rendition of Take Me To The River, it was exhilarating. On the walk back to the car we just kept saying, “that was really fun!”

When I feel really low, wishing nothing more than to feel nothing, I sometimes consider methods of willing myself to eliminate the feeling of suffering. But, I’ve always known I am a flawed stoic; I can’t make myself commit to ideas that risk eliminating the river that runs along side the pain:  The chance for joy, baby – pure joy.