Inner Discipline, Inner Power

Tom Morris

Philosophical remarks I've come across in just the past few days:

"You have to adhere to the philosophy that the life unexamined is not worth living. Because, otherwise, you're just living from day to day and you don't have any real sense of yourself or who you are."
- Tom Hanks, in GQ

"What are we moving toward? That's what I'm interested in. Because I think that's when empires fail - when no one understands what the vision is."
- Francis Ford Coppola, in Newsweek

I sometimes like to take the opportunity to write here about what I'm reading during the week, and share some of the insights I'm getting as I read. One book in particular has focused some of my thoughts about life in the last few days, and has reminded me of what a good book should be.

A good book should never be just read, but should be used. Let me give you an example of what I mean: When I'm reading a book that gets me excited now and then with nuggets of insight, new angles or perspectives that enhance my understanding of life, I make marks in the margin - a single vertical line beside any passage that I'd like to come back to, a double line next to a really good one that I should come back to, a double line and a star beside an amazingly good point, and as my exuberance increases, the stars multiply. When I have a philosophical revelation, you'll find in the book double and triple lines, three or four stars in a cluster, the page number circled, maybe even the corner dog-eared, and things like "WOW" and "GREAT" written in the margins. Oh, yeah, and underlining. At that point, take my pulse and blood pressure, I'm cookin' big time.

Well, I was reading some of The Inner Citadel, a scholarly book by Pierre Hadot about the stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, on the plane this week, and marking up margins and turning down corners to beat all. When I finished the last page, I then went back to review all the good stuff I had found. Now, this weekend, I've done that for the second time. And I plan on a third run through tomorrow. I really want to master its insights and incorporate them into my life. That's what my marginal markings make possible. I can use them to review selectively, and study the great parts. But it's all just page decoration unless I do go back and use those marks to guide me to what I need to re-read and think about. I've learned that this sort of review is best done while I'm still fresh and excited about the book. Otherwise, life intervenes and distractions derail my best intentions to get back to it.

Marcus Aurelius had so many great insights about life, and these perspectives often came from his reading and mastering passages in the texts of prior stoic thinkers, and then applying them in his own life. We get the reverberations of his thought in his great compilation The Meditations, which I've discussed elsewhere on this site at length (See "Tom's Newest Book in Progress."). Today I just want to mention one framework of ideas that I think can be useful.

Hadot isolates three inner disciplines in the thought of the emperor. The claim is that these three disciplines will give us the inner power we need to live good lives. Let me list them simply, and give each a quote from the emperor. They are as follows:

The Three Disciplines
(1) The Discipline of Thought - "Your life is what your thoughts make it."
(2) The Discipline of Desire - "Very little is actually necessary for a happy life."
(3) The Discipline of Action - "If it's not right, don't do it; if it's not true, don't say it."

Let's take a moment on each of these.

The Discipline of Thought.

We basically react to the world by reacting to the thoughts we have about the world. And we often form judgments too quickly. "This is TERRIBLE," we say, or "This is GREAT," without waiting to see if surface appearances reflect deeper realities. And there's your whole diagnosis for the recent dotcom debacle. We need to discipline our judgments. We must understand how our thoughts - our inner discourse, the ways we depict things to ourselves - often buffet us about, disturbing us unnecessarily and diverting our energies in unproductive ways.

We need to understand that thoughts are tools. Are we using them as productively as we can? Are our thoughts serving us well, or are we their victims? It's up to us.

The Discipline of Desire

This involves the old fashioned idea of restraint. And it also involves the question of who is in charge. Are we addicted to our cravings? Are we overwhelmed with felt needs that are only wants out of control? Marcus hopes to show us that external things are never really necessary for the happy life. Only inner freedom and morally good choice based in that freedom can give us the deepest sense of fulfillment we too often chase in external things. We have a basic choice in this life: to discipline our desires or to be destroyed by them.

The Discipline of Action

How do we decide what to do in a difficult situation? What motivates us? Is our over-riding value that of self-interest? Or are we conscious that each of us is always only a part of an overarching community? That the good of others becomes our own good? Do we react unthinkingly to the behaviors of others, or do we govern ourselves in accordance with our highest values and realizations?

Marcus realizes that we are all responsible for creating many of our own problems by inappropriate decisions and actions. He wants to encourage us to take charge of our actions by bringing them into line with a profound understanding of what really matters in life and who we are in connection with other people. He wants to save us from unnecessary misery and guide us onto a more productive path of living. All it takes is a discipline of action in accordance with reason and goodness.

Just think about how many problems could be avoided or easily solved if we were all to become masters of these three simple disciplines. Much of what Marcus Aurelius wrote is meant to help us along to that goal. And it's worth our serious consideration.


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