Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Memento Mortuis - A proposal for a Stoic Exercise

When we read the Stoics carefully, we usually get two main impressions as to their focus. The first is typically one of the independence of the self, that choice is up to individual. The second, though less obvious, is of the duty to others, that service is the greatest expression of the good in us. There is a third, much less visible focus. It is regarding acknowledging the impact that others have on us. Putting all arguments regarding the so-called dispassion of the Stoic sage aside, we have a long and excellent example of a Stoic's acknowledgement of the interconnection and dependence on friends, family, mentors and teachers.

Marcus Aurelius' entire first book is an extended exploration into the power, influence and example that many of the people in his life had on him. Unlike the rest of the 'Meditations,' Book I was written at a precise moment, with a precise plan in mind. It is unified in a way that the other 11 books are not, and it is possible that it was not originally part of the 'Meditations' at all, but was perhaps a parallel literary project which was added to his journals post mortem. (Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel, p. 263)

As a standalone document, Book I is a remarkable example of exploration of the self and its interconnectedness with others, and even with fate itself. A read through it will reveal an underlying dependence on the examples, both positive and negative, offered up to Marcus for consideration. Many of the examples that he lists, however, are dead by the time he writes about them; for example his fathers, his mother, and many of his mentors. 

Hadot refers to all of Book I as a 'prayer of thanksgiving,' however this aspect of gratitude seems to be limited to Section 17, and it appears to be directed to the gods and fate. Perhaps a separate exercise, a Gratus Animus, could be developed from this passage, focusing on the good fortune of one's circumstances, acknowledging the fact that others are not so fortunate. That, however, is beyond the scope of this proposal.

Based on Sections 1 - 16, I would like to propose the Memento Mortuis, the Remembrance of the Dead. The Memento Mortuis is a parallel exercise to the Stoic Memento Mori (Remembrance of Death) exercise, where we as Stoics are called to face the reality of our mortality, and see our coming death as a natural event. (See Julian Evans' excellent article on the Memento Mori for more details []).

The Memento Mortuis, instead, looks not at death itself, but at the lives of the dead, and traces our dependence on them, and their impact on us. The exercise would focus on a specific person and would explore as many of the influences of that person on oneself as could be brought to mind. An example of the proposed Memento Mortuis would be Section 16 of Book 1. This written exercise would explore all of the impacts of one person's life upon our own, both positive and negative, with a specific focus on the lessons learned as a result. The ends of the exercise would be to acknowledge the roots of many of our beliefs and behaviours, and to trace them back perhaps to their causes.

What follows is merely a suggestion for the form such an exercise might take. A far more informal approach may be taken with similar results.

The Memento Mortuis

The Memento Motuis acknowledges a single person's impact on your life. It can be done on a significant anniversary of the death of the individual, perhaps 5 or 10 years afterwards, or at any time that seems appropriate.

It is suggested that you refresh your memory of the person prior to beginning this exercise. Collect photos, videos, letters, and objects that remind you of the individual. If appropriate, speak with others in your circle who have also been impacted by this person's life.

Find a private place for your work and give yourself at least an hour or so of time alone to do this. Try to have a picture with you or something that reminds you of the person, even if it is only their full name written carefully on a piece of paper in front of you. 

You may begin to write using Marcus' own expression "From [name] I learned..." then write the first thing that comes to your mind. Explain how you felt around them, what things they did or said that impacted you. Try to remember watching them with other people as well. How did they behave, how did the treat the things in their life? You are not writing a biography, but rather highlighting the interactions with your life. Note what you learned and experienced from their negative behaviour as well. Your honest memory is what is important here. 

Marcus tends to simply cut off when he has said what he intended, however you may wish to summarize for yourself the lessons and impacts. 

A Book of Remembrance

A final suggestion. If you plan on doing this for several individuals over a period of time, you might want to consider writing your thoughts in a 'Book of Remembrance.' In the end, it might look much like Marcus' Book I. You may also want to periodically review, and perhaps amend or add to the book. As the years pass, our interpretation of the impact of the people in our lives will change. Noting this shifting of perspective will say as much about our own lives as it will about the people we remember, perhaps more.