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Week 7: Marcus Aurelius's Deconstruction

Besides being one of the most accessible Stoic writings, Meditations also has some of the best examples of how to practice Stoicism. This week, we're going to focus on one such tactic: deconstruction.

Break It Down

The idea behind deconstruction is simple: break down an object to simple terms. Marcus did this well, to the point that the stuff he deconstructed looked disgustingly absurd. For example, he took his royal robes, dyed purple, and explained to himself that it was nothing more than sheep's hair and urchin blood.

Oh, that's not that bad. I hear you. But what about what he said about the fancy foods he ate at dinner? He thought of them as bits and pieces of rotting flesh and plant matter, warmed up. Wine is nothing more than smashed and rotten grapes. Sex is nothing more than two people rubbing genitalia together and making odd noises in the hopes of inducing muscle contractions and the secretion of certain bodily fluids.

All I'm saying is, Marcus Aurelius ruined my sex life.

Buddhist Overlap

Some readers might recognize this exercise in Buddhism. In order to help break our attachment, Buddhists say we should imagine things in a decaying state, much in the same way Marcus did. See the food as moldering. When having sex, see your partner turn old and decay into nothingness.

Enlightenment, it seems, is learning how to hate sex.

You know, this doesn't seem all that fun.

Yeah, no, it isn't. But it is valuable.

Like Buddhists, Stoics cation against placing too much value into anything. For Buddhists, it's about avoiding attachment. For Stoics, it's for making sure we don't believe something other than virtue to be a good.

But this can also go the other way, too. Breaking things down can prove to you something isn't bad, either. What is pain but your brain letting you know something is wrong with your body? Fever is just the warming of the body.

Jealous of someone? Is it because of their money? Nothing more than little bits of paper. No, not even that, not anymore. Just little bits of data on some bank's computer. Their job? I'm sure you can find a way.

Like a lot of Stoic practices, the more you do something, the easier it becomes. Forcing yourself to see food as rotting might turn your stomach. That is, until it doesn't anymore and it's just one of those things you do.

Do this long enough and it'll become second nature. At least, it did for me. You won't even have to try.

The Challenge

In your journal, I want you to do your best to deconstruct something. Start small: try a food you've been wanting to avoid or a gadget you want to distance yourself from. It doesn't have to be intentionally disgusting, though when it comes to organic objects, odds are it'll end up that way. There's just no way to see meat as something other than a dead animal.

Next Thursday, I want us all to share one entry.
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