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May 2023 Issue [Reviews]

Time Is a Violent Stream

On losing a father and finding Stoicism
Illustrations by Zach Meyer

Illustrations by Zach Meyer


Time Is a Violent Stream

On losing a father and finding Stoicism

Discussed in this essay:

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, translated from the Greek by Martin Hammond. Penguin Classics. 304 pages. $11.

The morning after my father’s death, two years ago now, I was sitting in my office writing emails to people who’d known and loved him. My daughter was in her bedroom, on Zoom, in the middle of COVID kindergarten. Her bedroom is next to my office; I could hear every word she was saying, just as I can hear every word she’s saying right now. I stopped typing when her teacher, whom we’d emailed with the news, asked how she was holding up. My daughter, in a small voice, said her dad had been crying all morning. Said, too, that she was worried about him. Finally, she said this: “I’m really going to miss my grandpa.” Except she didn’t say “grandpa.” She said “GP,” our family’s particular spin on the general problem of not referring to baby boomer grandparents as the one thing they don’t want to be referred to as, which is grandparents.

Given how much I’d wept over the previous six hours, I couldn’t imagine that I had many tears left. A mistaken assumption, it turned out. But then death had never been an easy hill for me. I looked upon it with unease and climbed it (and we’re all climbing it, every day, without pause) with unalloyed dread. Thoughts of death—my own, certainly, but everyone else’s too—often gave me night terrors so intense that I had to get out of bed and walk around the house, touching things to ground myself. I eventually learned a calming trick, devised for me by the one and only therapist I’ve ever consulted. Unfortunately the trick stopped working after a while, at which point I decided to let the terror happen when it happened. To try to live in it. Lying there, terrified, I’d whisper to myself, Just be brave.

It wasn’t envisioning gruesome or horrifying deaths that most upset me. I could imagine thinking, with mortified embarrassment, as the hyenas tugged at my intestines, Well, this is pretty fucking stupid. The versions of my death that really wormed into my brain stem were the ones that had me in a hospice bed, surrounded by loved ones, all of whom were giving me permission to let go—that was the point at which my nocturnal panic attacks invariably began. Because, at the crucial junction, I didn’t want permission. What I wanted was to crawl away, unnoticed, like a wounded dog, succumbing alone in some isolated den. Thinking of death that way, as an enemy to be fought and resisted, helped. For a while, anyway.

I’d known what to expect the moment I saw my stepmother’s name on my buzzing phone in the middle of the previous night. Just a few days before, I’d been advised to prepare myself for my father’s death. I thought about getting on a flight to see him, but COVID was rampant and my father seemed ambivalent. I spent the next forty-eight hours in a state of narcotized dread. Then we got some good news. It turned out that what my father was going through was very likely treatable, especially after more tests, more pinpointing of the problem’s locus. I spoke to him briefly after he’d been informed of this. The last thing he said to me, other than “I love you,” was how unsettling he found “not knowing” what exactly was happening to him. He died a few hours later.

When I was a child, living in a world without my father seemed like living in a world without gravity—something imaginable but at the same time deeply impossible. These thoughts of fatherlessness had grown noticeably less impossible over the years. The moment I learned my father was dead was also the moment I realized all my mental preparation for this moment hadn’t done much to prepare me. Maybe nothing could, because maybe nothing does.

Just be brave. That’s what I was telling myself, looking around my office while my daughter talked about missing her GP, presently adrift in the cosmos. But then my tear-blurred eyes came to rest on a particular bookcase quadrant, where Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations—arguably the greatest work of Stoic philosophy— stood on its slim edge. I’d read the book twice, once for a college philosophy class and again while writing a book about early Christianity. A few passages had stayed with me (“Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate”), but most of Marcus’s thoughts had turned vaporous, exactly like those of every other philosopher I’d ever read. A lifetime of reading and writing had made me conditionally adherent to dozens of half-understood creeds: a capitalist on payday and asocialist when I can’t find day care, a Nietzschean at midnight and a Jamesian pragmatist at dawn. I have never been a theoretical person. Relatedly, I am perfectly incapable of following written instructions of any kind. I believe what I believe and seek out the systems of thought that support my beliefs, which change subtly from day to day. At the same time, virtually nothing can change my mind. Which is to say I’m identical to 95 percent of my fellow human beings, slaves to circumstance and our own unbudgeable nodes of inclination.

I recalled an older mentor of mine, years before, telling me he read at least one of Marcus’s meditations every morning. When I asked why, he didn’t elaborate—a very Stoic thing to do, it occurs to me now. I had also recently learned of something known as Stoic TikTok, wherein putatively educational videos about Stoic thinking had racked up tens of millions of views. At some point I’d even wandered into the Stoicism subreddit, whose half a million subscribers pose earnest questions such as: “Does Seneca’s quote ‘We suffer more in imagination than in reality’ imply that we must have a ‘fuck around and find out’ mentality?” I’d also read about the eruption of interest in Stoic writing during the pandemic—sales of a book by the aforementioned Seneca, for instance, increased by 700 percent in the lockdown’s first month—and had recently seen mention of a New England Patriots executive insisting that the team adopt Stoic precepts and ideas. That an ancient philosophy based on self-denial could find an audience among TikTokers, subredditors, and gladiatorial millionaires suggested two possibilities: Stoicism either had quite a lot going for it, or nothing at all.

So I wiped my eyes, pulled Marcus’s Meditations off the shelf, and started to read.

Around 310 bc, a young merchant named Zeno watched as a ship (his) loaded with purple dye (also his) sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. A crucial tenet of Stoic thought holds that our only true belonging is our character, so why fret about physical possessions? At the time, Zeno would have resisted this insight, since the lost dye made up the better part of his personal fortune. According to tradition, the ruined Zeno wandered the streets of Athens, picking up various bits of its street philosophies before setting off on his own. He eventually established his tutorial base camp in the central agora of Athens—on a covered porch famous for its martial paintings. Initially, Zeno’s students were called Zenonians, but they later become known for their gathering place. Those who followed the endlessly pacing Zeno through the Stoa Poikile (“painted porch”) were thus branded Stoics.

There aren’t a great number of extant classical Stoic texts. None of Zeno’s works survived intact, for instance, though we have some aphorisms attributed to him. The first Stoic whose writings have come to us more or less intact is Seneca, a Roman who died in 65 ad. Even in this slender library one finds a remarkable amount of disagreement. In fact, Stoicism lacks almost anything resembling dogma. It’s not a philosophy of the teacher-guru. It’s a practical, tough-minded philosophy of the willing student.

The ancient Stoics did hold a few common beliefs, one of them having to do with virtue, which in its original Greek sense meant simply “excellence” and could be applied to anything, living or inanimate. If a dog was loyal, it had virtue, because it was what a dog should be. According to the first Stoics, human virtue derived from our species’ singular ability to think and act rationally, meaning that we could live according to principles higher than seeking out our next meal. By behaving in rational ways, we honor our virtue, which is to say our humanness. Another primary focus of the ancient Stoics was living “in agreement with Nature.” They believed that one accomplished this by avoiding the psychological snares of human passion. Think before you act and, once you’ve acted, think about what you did. Try to be thoughtful. Don’t overreact. Focus on what you can control and remain indifferent to what you can’t. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll die eventually, so don’t waste time. These modest predicates make up the cool white heart of classical Stoicism.

Its disinterest in rhetorical cleverness likely helped this easily digestible but emotionally spectral philosophy to spread so quickly among elites. Socrates’s method was to ask questions until the issue at hand was mired in useful non-conclusion, but classical Stoicism was intended to have an immediate, positive impact on its adherents’ lives. According to Marcus Aurelius, you didn’t even need to be particularly intelligent to live out Stoic values:

Display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?

It’s no exaggeration to say there had never been a person like Marcus Aurelius, and it’s not unreasonable to posit there will never be another like him. Matthew Arnold famously referred to Marcus as “perhaps the most beautiful figure in history,” and it’s a tempting judgment, perhaps even correct. His father died when he was three years old, after which his wealthy but plain-living mother saw to it that her son was properly educated. Marcus gravitated toward his Stoic tutors, disliking his other teachers’ insistence on debate, which, even as a young man, he feared would lead to vain and deceitful habits of mind. Although he’s remembered today primarily as a philosopher, Marcus was for nearly twenty years the emperor of Rome and thus one of the most powerful humans on the planet. Despite that aerie, he spent a good portion of his days writing solemn, stark notes to himself. In some, he agonized over his quickness to anger. In others, he devised elaborate mental exercises to help him be kinder and more generous. In yet others he complained about the fraudulent puffery of court life and outlined his worries about allowing himself to become, as he put it, “Caeserified.” One of the first things he did when he became emperor was outlaw the use of sharp weapons in the Colosseum. During Marcus’s rule, gladiators hit each other with dulled or wooden weapons. He wanted no one killed for sport.

Marcus—who wrote in Greek, though most other Roman Stoics wrote in Latin—didn’t call his book Meditations. He probably didn’t call it anything, as it’s doubtful he was aware he was writing anything beyond a personal journal. In antiquity, the book was known by the Greek title Ta eis heauton or Addresses to Himself. Scholars believe Marcus began what became Meditations after the death of his adopted brother (and co-emperor) Lucius. Going off a few stray inferences in the text (“Farce, war, frenzy, torpor, slavery! Day by day those sacred doctrines of yours will be wiped out”), it’s widely assumed that Marcus wrote at least some of his meditations on the empire’s frontier, as his amassed army clanged swords with barbarians.

No one knows how, why, or by whom Meditations was discovered, copied, and consequently preserved, or how much editorial meddling the text underwent. (Our earliest copy, today held by the Vatican, dates from the fourteenth century.) None of Marcus’s friends or family ever mentioned that he’d written anything substantive, and the book was first quoted (apparently quoted, it should be said; there’s some debate on this) a century after Marcus’s death by a supporter of the emperor Julian’s attempt to repaganize the Roman Empire. Meditations wasn’t formally published until 1559, in Zurich, though that edition was based on an earlier, somewhat different manuscript that no longer exists.

These are the rough outlines of all that I knew before reopening Meditations—an odd, crabby, private work that masquerades as a staid public classic. The thing about Marcus’s brand of Stoicism that struck me during my first reading was its conspicuously premodern impracticality. Marcus’s stated goal was to become so pure-hearted that he could live his entire life without “the secrecy of walls and drapes,” which even to my college-age self seemed unwise, perhaps even insane. On my second, more recent reading, Marcus’s insistence that we should avoid “empty enthusiasms” irritated me, given that a huge part of my life and livelihood by then revolved around empty enthusiasms: video games, book reviews, Hollywood. Marcus’s Stoicism left no room for levity, laziness, apathy, escapism, wandering—the experiential building blocks of the average freelancer’s working day. Stoicism, as I then understood it, seemed to make being alive just another exhausting form of duty.

Reading it anew, however, I felt the upsurge of a strange new voltage. Marcus is great at generalized aphorism but also profound self-analysis. Sometimes he’s wry and sometimes he’s mean and sometimes he’s all moonbeam gentleness. One passage stuns you with rhetorical magnificence and the next puts you to sleep with metaphysical chloroform. You can skim Marcus or read him deeply. You can jump around or read him straight through. He rewards all approaches, all attempts at communion. No matter what, you’ll get the sense, as you read him, that Marcus is here to help you. Despite being a book about Stoicism, and written by the philosophy’s greatest mind, Marcus rarely mentions his fellow Stoics and makes no claim to be formally among their number. Marcus is not peddling a belief system. He’s extolling the vital, mind-saving utility of a way of thinking and being. Or so it felt to me.

Meditations opens with several pages in which Marcus identifies someone he learned from and then itemizes exactly what he learned. The first: “From my grandfather Verus: decency and a mild temper.” And the second: “From what they say and I remember of my natural father: integrity and manliness.” That Marcus mentions his half-remembered father so early and prominently suggests—to me, anyway—that patriarchal loss doomed Marcus to Stoicism.

With its unsentimental insistence, Stoicism offers special comfort to the recently fatherless. What to do when your life’s oldest, most familiar anchor is sent chain-snapped to the bottom of the fathomless sea? Stoicism points you toward rough new waters and promises you’ll traverse them alone. It tells you to separate your first impressions—how things make you feel—from your consequent behavior. Do what’s right. Say what’s true. It thus becomes, in an odd way, your new father and new anchor. Drop here. It reminds you that even if something horrible has happened, you still have to work through the implications, and better to do that calmly than while panicking or angry or weeping in a home office adjacent to your daughter’s bedroom.

More than anything, Stoicism teaches you how to value what you already have. People are always seeking new forms of retreat, Marcus writes. “No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind.” I felt a reassuring stillness after reading that, and I went there, into my own mind—the last place I could still find my father. “So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself,” Marcus goes on. “The doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.”

By the time I read those words my father had been dead for around eight hours. I knew I would need to mourn him; I was mourning him. But my path out of mourning, my path to “rejoin” the life I had . . . suddenly, I could see it, and it led me directly into my daughter’s bedroom, where she was sitting before her computer, her Zoom class having just concluded. “To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land.” I’d read these lines before but, kneeling before my daughter, they’d never felt more compelling. As for death, Marcus writes, it’s “nothing more than a function of nature—and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child.”

And so I told my daughter I missed GP, just as much as she did, and that was okay. I told her I was going to cry more in the coming days, and that was okay. Finally, I told her, and tried very much to believe, that death was nothing to be afraid of. For now we were still together in this strange land.

Hundreds of books attempting to popularize Stoicism have appeared over the past few years. Some of the better titles include Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, David Fideler’s Breakfast with Seneca, and Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic. In the months after my father’s death, I read these and a score more, eager for insight into this way of thinking and being that had so affected me—to the point that my nighttime panic attacks ceased altogether. Whenever I feel an unwelcome nocturnal alarum, I recite the following words of Marcus, which I’ve taken to calling A Prayer for the Fearful:

Why, then, my imagination, are you doing what you do? Go away, in the gods’ name, the way you came. I have no need of you. You have come in your old habit. I am not angry with you. Only go away.

Every responsible book about Stoicism stresses its difficulty, but also its philosophical flexibility. Not many ancient philosophies are seamlessly applicable to modern life, after all. But as I dipped into more pop-inflected forms of neo-Stoicism, I was dismayed to discover how often they tilted into men’s rights tantrums and, occasionally, outright predation. Take the so-called Sarah Lawrence sex-cult leader, Larry Ray, who began recruiting his daughter’s friends at the college by “holding forth on the importance of honesty and extolling the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius,” according to the New York Times. In other instances, Stoicism served as mere window dressing. Whenever I searched for Marcus Aurelius quotes on Twitter, for instance, a good rule of thumb became clear: If an account had as its avatar Marcus’s renowned visage from the Musei Capitolini statue in Rome, and the account wasn’t that of an actual classicist or museum worker, I was almost certainly dealing with a user whose genteel gateway would soon lead me down a corridor of outright fascism.

Less easily avoided were seemingly sincere promoters of Stoicism who seemed to miss entirely the point of Stoic thought. Probably the most commercially successful popularizer of Stoic ideas is a former marketer named Ryan Holiday, who has built a publishing and merchandizing empire on the backs of Seneca and Marcus. Courage Is Calling is the first volume of Holiday’s four-book series on Stoicism’s virtues, which Holiday calls “the stuff that the door to the good life hangs on.” This helpfully illustrates the general rhetorical problem with modern popularizers of the philosophy. Some ancient Stoics likened their school of thought to a painful trip to see the doctor. (Seneca referred to himself as a suffering patient consulting his fellow patients.) But writers such as Holiday attempt to transform Stoicism into an antibiotic or nostrum. Stoicism can’t be both diagnosis and cure.

In Courage Is Calling, Holiday discusses the “psychic dynamite” of figures as diverse as Florence Nightingale, Ulysses S. Grant, Frank Serpico, Charles de Gaulle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and . . . Peter Thiel? Yes, Peter Thiel. What makes Thiel unusually courageous? Seeking legal action against Gawker, naturally. “When fear is defined, it can be defeated,” Holiday writes. “When downside is articulated, it can be weighed against upside. When the wolves are counted, there are fewer of them.”

On one highly representative page, Holiday quotes Malcolm X and William Shakespeare. The former quote appears on approximately ten thousand “inspirational words” websites, none of which provide a shred of evidence Malcolm actually said it, whereas the latter quote is something pulled from Cymbeline in a context that in no way supports Holiday’s hair-shirt citation. Holiday also plucks a line from Wilfred Owen’s poem “Insensibility”—a work of searing irony—as an occasion to warn his readers against imagining too much. It’s “when we catastrophize endlessly,” he writes, “that we are miserable and most afraid.” Owen’s lines (“Happy are these who lose imagination: / They have enough to carry with ammunition”) do not exactly depict the poem’s soldiers as enlightened Stoics, as Holiday implies. On the contrary, Owen is mock-valorizing the zomboid state to which trench warfare had reduced them.

In his afterword, Holiday writes of a time when his own courage failed him. “I hesitated even to write” about the experience, he confides, “and some people told me not to include it . . . but then I remembered that hesitation ought to steel your resolve.” These events concern a time, more than a decade ago, when the disgraced American Apparel CEO Dov Charney asked a twenty-something Holiday “to leak naked photos of a woman who was suing him.” Holiday refused, but kept working for Charney. “Why didn’t I quit on the spot? Why didn’t everybody? Why did I still want to keep the job?” In unrolling his litany of convenient excuses—which, to his credit, he recognizes as such—he writes,

I stayed because I thought I could make more of a difference by staying. Because I believed in the mission of the company (it was doing good in the world). Because I wasn’t like the others or like him.

Charney eventually spiraled into mad-king degeneracy, at which point Holiday began to argue within the company “that Dov needed help,” much in the way, he writes, the Roman emperor Nero had needed help, and that “removing him was the only way to do it.” It wasn’t until Holiday was on the road promoting his first bestseller about Stoicism, The Obstacle Is the Way, that Charney was finally fired.

Nothing else in the book feels like this passage, which is more in line with Holiday’s earlier, highly entertaining, and decidedly non-Stoic account of his marketing career, Trust Me, I’m Lying. A man who failed a core ethical test by continuing to work for a monster, on the road promoting his self-help book about Stoicism—nothing could be more self-negatingly delicious. Yet it’s also very Stoic. Seneca, after all, was made Nero’s tutor when Nero was eleven years old. As one writer rather mercifully puts it: “Despite Seneca’s efforts to help Nero develop a good character, the project was a total failure.” Nero went on to become Nero, and Seneca eventually killed himself on his former pupil’s order. Marcus, too, failed to pass down Stoicism’s virtues to his own son, Commodus, who became one of Rome’s least distinguished and most pettily vicious emperors. Does this undermine Stoicism, or merely suggest how difficult it is to live according to Stoic values? With two such spectacular flameouts on the historical record, why would Stoicism continue to hold appeal?

As American Apparel imploded, Holiday asked himself if he’d been Seneca’s “minor twenty-first-century equivalent.” His answer: “Indisputably, I had fallen short. I had compromised. I should have known better. I could have been braver.” But the ultimate beauty and usefulness of Stoicism is that it’s not at all concerned with success stories. Unlike Christianity, with its oscillographic tumblings into and out of sin, with nothing learned in the interim but the need for unquestioning celestial obedience, Stoicism offers consolation, not salvation. Or rather, it offers salvation via consolation. It’s an internal rather than a cosmic salvation, which means that, in an odd way, hypocrisy winds up strengthening Stoicism’s imperatives, because advocating for Stoicism doesn’t mean demanding perfection or punishing its opposite.

I can hardly blame Holiday or anyone else for wanting to popularize Stoicism. What else am I attempting to do here? At the same time, the thing I have come to most appreciate about Stoicism is that it doesn’t need me. Just as it makes no difference how many people around me are Stoics or Stoic-curious or Stoic-indifferent. Marcus again: “Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you.”

Only the unwise would deem such thoughts nihilistic, rather than what they are—liberating.

I have no idea whether my father ever read Marcus Aurelius, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had. He always had a special love for history. After graduating third in his class, he attended Georgetown University, something of which he was always proud. My father and I are both from Escanaba, Michigan, a small town in the Upper Peninsula, and not many of its sons and daughters, then or now, set their educational sights on private colleges along the fabled East Coast. He’d told me many stories over the years about the myriad shocks Georgetown had in store. One of his roommates, for instance, was the son of Spain’s ambassador to the United States . . . or was it the Greek ambassador’s son, or maybe that of Andorra? I don’t remember.

I do recall my father telling me how much he loved a certain classical philosophy class. My father was a business major, but he wasn’t escaping a rigorous Catholic education without being brought into contact with the world Christianity helped to dismantle. I wrote an entire book about my father and have hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews with him, so it’s not like I never had the opportunity to ask him the big questions. Yet now I find myself longing to ask the smaller, quirkier questions about matters I could once get to the bottom of with a phone call. Hey, Pop. Remind me of the name of your Georgetown roommate. Oh, and tell me again about that classical philosophy class you liked so much. What I would give to call him right now and say, Pop. Marcus Aurelius—you read him, right? Because so much of Marcus’s mental architecture—his injunctions, his emotional monasticism, his drive—resembles that of my father, a Midwestern stoic from the first.

Small-s stoicism has little to do with classical Stoicism, of course, just as cynicism has little to do with classical Cynicism and epicureanism has little to do with classical Epicureanism. The old Cynics made outrageous statements to point out social hypocrisy, which eventually curdled into the self-satisfied negativity with which we’re all familiar. The old Epicureans made the philosophical case for pleasure, yes, but they were hardly rapacious hedonists. Yet the downriver remnants of these ancient philosophies clearly have some sort of relationship to their namesakes. Take a famous passage from book six of Meditations, wherein Marcus implores himself to strip his perceptions of moral or aesthetic judgment, so as to see “the heart of the real thing.” He was never eating a sumptuous piece of pork but rather the body of a dead pig. The “Falernian wine” he liked to get toasty sipping was “the mere juice of grapes.” Sex was nothing more than “the friction of a membrane and a spurt of mucus ejected.” By constantly reminding himself what things fundamentally were, Marcus hoped to take away their transfixing, confusing power. The Stoic looking to be stoic.

“Tommy, you have to stop being so dramatic.” How many times my father said this to me over the years—and I almost always deserved it. I was (and remain) prone to understanding the events of my life with an exactingly dire interpretation. I would argue that I wasn’t being overly dramatic at all, which he’d understand if he just listened to the facts as I set them out. He’d then ask me to restate what was bothering me without “undue editorializing,” which always—infuriatingly—proved his point. My stoic father then, like Stoic Marcus now, was pointing out how being self-consciously “dramatic” damages you, enforces distortion, causes you to overreact, particularly if you’re a writer trained to frame things in the most emphatic terms possible. Yet as humans alive in this world, away from the necessary distortions of our art, writers also have to learn to see, and recognize, and cherish, the basic plainness of things. There can be no drama without fermatas of stillness.

Once, while eating with my father in Vietnam, I opened up an issue of The Economist someone had left on the table next to us to find a highly favorable review of my first book. I was thrilled, as I had no idea the review was coming. Sitting across from him as he ate peeled shrimp, I started to read aloud from the review, only to have my father, smiling lopsidedly, ask, “Why do you care so much about what The Economist says?” Then he popped another shrimp. I spent the rest of the afternoon fixated on that remark. But here comes Marcus, owlishly clarifying what my father had been trying to tell me: “Praise does not make anything better or worse.” And when Marcus writes, “Remember these two things: the action is important, the context indifferent,” I cast back to the times my father reminded me that being honest was always its own virtue, regardless of how hard or easy it was. Yet these echoes also illustrate my problem with Stoicism, which is identical to the problem I often had with my father. What good does it do to let everyone off the hook but yourself? Why urge forgiveness and forbearance for others while subjecting your own mind to unending criticism?

This is to say nothing of classical Stoicism’s utter inability to deal with the problem of chaos, largely because it denies there is any such force at work. “All things are meshed together, and a sacred bond unites them,” writes Marcus. “Hardly a single thing is alien to the rest: ordered together in their places they together make up the one order of the universe.” Dark matter, early-onset dementia, and pediatric cancer, to name but a few brain-scramblers, tend to upend any reassuring sense of Marcus’s order or supposed sacred bond. In my darker turns of mind, all I can picture is entropy, as wide as the cosmos, slowly ripping the seams of what we flatter ourselves to deem reality. Stoicism feels less like a mighty lighthouse during such moments than it does a small, pathetic buoy.

The morning of 9/11, I was flying home to New York City and wound up stranded in Detroit. Having managed to snag the city’s last available rental car, I drove nine hours to my father and stepmother’s home in Escanaba. By the time I arrived I was what is politely known as “a wreck.” Despite the fact that my city was under attack, my father, a Vietnam veteran, affected an almost inhuman nonchalance about the events of the day. “It’s what happens,” he kept saying. “Calm down.” Here they were: the barren limits of my father’s small-s stoicism. He didn’t get it. Just as Marcus’s paean to oneness, law, and order didn’t, don’t, and will never get it.

But I was reading deeper into Marcus now, and coming upon a passage in which he writes of seeing body parts on the plain of battle, which triggers a gorgeous reflection on wholeness and power and the need for those living apart from society to “rejoin the unity” of life. In Marcus we have a man who could come across severed heads and feet and transform the memory into a metaphor of the human need for contact and togetherness. (Marcus knew that external violence is always the mirror of internal violence.) In my father we had a man who could witness the carnage of lower Manhattan, look his terrified and heartbroken son in the eyes, and judge it just another day, another event. Was that strength or weakness, wisdom or delusion? I couldn’t say. But it was better than disgust and more useful than anger. And it says something that, more than twenty years later, my father’s calm is the thing I remember most clearly from that day.

Whenever I disappointed my father—and throughout my adolescence I showed a striking talent for that—he would get very quiet and turn away. Usually, he’d refuse to speak to me for several hours. Sometimes days. His blockbuster silences enraged me. I wanted to have things out, to explain myself. But my father, who nearly bled to death outside the village of Tuy Phuoc, had accepted what he could and couldn’t control, and for a long time one of the things he couldn’t control was me. I thus had to learn to control myself. In time, I did. In the days and weeks following his death, many people told me how proud of me he was, how often he talked about my supposed accomplishments. My father rarely shared such sentiment with me. Just as he knew I didn’t need his attempts to control me, I also didn’t need his validation. He’d taught me not to need it. What occasionally felt like mild emotional neglect I now accept as his most crucial gift.

I don’t want to romanticize my father. He was one of the most honest and least angry men I’ve ever known, but he was also an alcoholic, suffered from PTSD, and never sought the treatment from which he (not to mention his family) would have greatly benefited. He could be stubborn and closed-minded and judgmental—though the last may be more Stoic than you think. Stoicism, despite its overriding concern with separating our judgments from our emotions, doesn’t shy away from the act of judging. If anything, it’s bracingly firm on judgments. Stoicism suggests that when something is bothering you to the point of upset, you probably have lousy or at least mistaken values. If you find yourself frequently bothered by the actions of those around you, your likeliest problem isn’t the people or what they’re doing but rather what you’ve chosen to care about. Stoicism asks whether the more we express ourselves, speak our truths, the more prone we are to fall into delusion. And it tries to remind us that our best, most precious place is the fortress Marcus advised himself to build and maintain—the fortress of the innermost self. External validation is worthless.

With that in mind, I can’t stop wondering what my father’s values really were, what his innermost fortress looked like. During the last years of his life he was in obvious distress. He adored my stepmother and called me and my brother at least once a day, but after his retirement he did little but nap, drink wine, and read in his easy chair. He’d once had many hobbies: bird hunting, sailing, watching movies about wars he didn’t fight in. No more. He’d become bizarrely anxious about all matters of timing and scheduling, maybe because time was the thing he was most conscious of losing. While he often affected contentedness, and I believe he was mostly content, he rarely seemed very happy. The ancient Stoics sometimes discuss happiness, but they were not terribly compelled by it. Stoic happiness, like Stoic everything else, makes internal calm its fountainhead. A happy Stoic is a quiet Stoic. Despite his lifelong stoicism, it turned out my father was incapable of being a quiet, happy Stoic.

Seneca believed it was a category error to view death as something that awaited us. To his friend Lucilius, Seneca wrote that every year and every experience that lay behind us was already in the grip of death. This remixes a fear my father often shared with me, for he viewed his life, from the moment a roadside bomb blew up next to him, cutting and slicing and tearing his body in two hundred different places, as unbidden mercy bestowed by some larger, unknown power he usually preferred to envision as the Roman Catholic God. Yet sometimes he wondered if he really had bled to death outside Tuy Phuoc, and all the rest was simply a long, pleasant dream.

The ultimate goal of the Greek and Roman Stoics was to reach the end of life in a state of gratitude and serenity. A good death—arguably the whole point of Stoicism—was to die in a manner that stood as an example to others. I know my father was grateful for the life he had, and he sometimes spoke openly about how ready he was to die. Other times, he confessed to me that the thought of dying greatly frightened him. About a year before his death, I brought my daughter back to Michigan to spend some time with him. Every time I plopped her down in front of him, however, my father would look at her, smile, and say something like, “How are you?” As she answered, I could see my father’s eyes staring right through her. His obvious love for her, her human promise, her continuation of his family line—these things were no longer enough to rouse him from the dark place he’d settled within his innermost fortress.

I now know how much pain my father was in during the last year of his life. Whether or not he’d read Marcus Aurelius, he would have taken to heart the common Stoic endorsement to endure pain, such as when Marcus quotes the Roman Stoic Epictetus: “Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination.” My father lived that way his whole life. He was reluctant to speak of his pain, or complain about it, or do much in particular to fix it. He figured his pain was endurable. And it was, right until the moment it wasn’t.

Writing this now, even after two years of reading and rereading Marcus, I feel grief bubbling up inside me, as though from some befouled spring. But then I open Meditations at random and quickly, cleansingly come upon a passage in which Marcus welcomes the prospect of his own death:

You embarked, you set sail, you made port. Go ashore now. If it is to another life, nothing is empty of the gods, even on that shore: and if to insensibility, you will cease to suffer pains and pleasures.

My father, go ashore.

The day came when my family scattered my father’s ashes in Lake Michigan, but we had a remarkably hard time getting him out of the tube. He’d died months before the ceremony, and ashy human remains, we discovered, can turn bricklike once they settle. There I was, with my brother and stepmother, bashing the side of my father’s hard cardboard interment tube with the avidity of someone trying to extract the last globs of ketchup from the bottle. “Jesus, Dad,” I said, laughing.

That morning, I’d woken up and read my Marcus. I felt good about my mental state, steady in my acceptance of my father’s death, and at peace with my expected duties. Then I watched as my father’s ashes dispersed and faded in the brown-blue littoral waves of Lake Michigan. I suddenly felt as lost as Zeno witnessing his fortune plunge to the bottom of the Mediterranean. All my steadiness, all my certainty—gone in a magician’s festive poof. My new creed sent sprawling by the first hard body check it received. What I felt like was a child who wanted his father.

I walked away, quickly, down the beach, muttering to myself Marcus’s words that I’d read and tried to internalize only hours before: “There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.” It wasn’t helping. Not only that, I was hyperventilating. I wanted to run, and keep running, off to my animal den where I could suffer alone. Then I heard my daughter calling after me. I turned. As she ran along the shore toward me, I thought of my favorite passage in Meditations, which keys off Marcus’s paraphrase of lines from The Iliad: “The wind scatters one year’s leaves on the ground. So it is with the generations of men.”

Life is just leaves blowing, Marcus writes. Loud voices of loyal praise, curses from your enemies—mere leaves. And your children, too—leaves blowing toward you, then around you, and finally away from you. My father, himself once borne by this same wind, now sunk back into the earth. My daughter, still running toward me, calling my name—pulling me back toward a unity I’m not sure I believe in, but want to.

This was Stoicism’s most painful conundrum. To be remote from the things you know you can’t control, yet still turn eagerly when your daughter calls your name. To attempt to convince her that death is nothing to be afraid of, yet hope more than anything she’ll live a long, fulfilling life. Time is a violent stream. It’s easy enough to accept that most of what flows past us, as the years erode our lives, will be of no great import. And it’s easy enough to imagine, dispassionately, the day the riverbank crumbles beneath my feet and I, too, disappear into the water. But imagining that fate for my daughter? Why, then, my imagination, are you doing what you do?

No other choice. Live in Stoicism’s impossible compromise. Walk toward her. Toward the rest of your family. Feel the cool, clean slap of the wind against your face.

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July 2016

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