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Marcus Aurelius on Cooling the Hot Take

Marcus Aurelius on Cooling the Hot Take

“You always have the option of having no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in your soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.” - Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, 6.52

Closing in on the end of the Aurelius project means I have now spent the better part of three months delving into several translations of Meditations and trying to get to the thoughts behind the translations behind the original journal entries. Overall, I am most struck by how simple, direct and relatable his philosophy is. You would think that nearly 2,000-year gap between us and Aurelius would make him hopelessly dated. Not so. Perhaps he remains relatable because he was writing for himself, and had no audience to impress. Perhaps he is so readable because he took his role as emperor seriously and therefore only had mental space for the most practical, utilitarian problems of how to become a better person while up to your neck in the daily shit-storm of running the known world.

Despite the advantages of his direct, personal and informal style, his journalistic style also leads to my biggest gripe with the work: that there is no particular order or consistency from passage to passage. I hope to assist with this structure in the final book, which should be ready to send to print in the next week or two.

As emperor, Aurelius would have delegated everything that could be. Consequently, every problem that made it to his desk would have been particularly intractable: floods, famines, plagues, coups, wars, economic crises, all handled in the most responsible way he could muster. Proactively, he handled an assassination plot with skill and clemency, managed economic strains with integrity by selling off imperial possessions rather than debasing the currency or levying taxes, reformed laws to the advantage of slaves, women and the impoverished, and promoted broader concern for education and culture. I’m not promoting an artificially rosy view of the Roman Empire, which had many problems and inherent injustices. Aurelius too was not perfect, but he notably would have been the first to say so. In addition to many practical epiphanies about self-conduct, his journals are filled with personal admonitions, and the dominant theme to take personal responsibility, to work harder and to do better is clear.

I admire how basic these admonitions get, including a reproach to his desire to stay in bed in the morning, and cutting through the complexities of social interactions with simple advice like “if it isn’t true, don’t say it.”

Along the same lines, the passage above from Book VI made me think of humanity’s latest mode of communication, my favorite whipping boy, social media. I fear that I am beating a dead horse, but as a Gen X-er, I straddle two worlds, and recognize the ways in which our power to interact in a thoughtful way with each other has been truncated along with Twitter’s character count. Our thoughts are like wood or hydrocarbons. The small ones burn fast and hot, but the bigger ones are what keep the fire going in the long run. The last twenty years have felt like a switch from long-cold-slow thoughts to short-hot-fast thoughts, appropriately called “hot takes.” On many subjects, it feels as if one is obligated to take a stance immediately. I hesitate to mention any particular subject, but pick your favorite polarizing topic of the last ten years, where despite scant information, everyone leaped to an instant conclusion and at least half the world ended up wrong, more likely everyone.

My late father was particularly good at asserting his right not to have an opinion. As a lawyer, he had the advantage of reflexively considering the best arguments on both sides of an issue, if only to anticipate the other side’s strategy. But it made him more thoughtful. It is no surprise that he never had any desire to own a smart phone, much less to have a Facebook account. The more I read the Stoics, the more I realize that he was living these principles without calling attention to it, which is, like, so Stoic of him, ya know??

Aurelius didn’t have a word for this distinction between fast and slow thinking, but we can be sure which he would have preferred. These two cognitive modes, which we now refer to as System 1 and System 2 thinking, were elucidated in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. I can’t help but observe that the internet and social media in particular, seem to ratchet our brains toward the autonomic, semi-conscious thinking of System 1, which by default hobbles our ability to engage in System 2 slow thinking. I wonder what a future where AI takes over certain kinds of mental labor for humanity, will it largely replace our ability to think slowly, calmly and rationally? Will it “free us” from cognitive discipline and leave us to be preyed upon by our own basest instincts? Or will it lead to a better world where mundane, repetitive tasks are managed effortlessly, leaving human beings to delve into the most socially and cognitively ambitious public projects? I can imagine a world where both occur in different groups, where some people rocket toward an optimally challenging existence, and too many are left to wallow in the worst of human shortcomings. Let’s hope we have the wisdom to leave no mind behind.

Anyway, like a good Stoic, the critique in this particular illustration is self-directed. Like most social-media-age denizens, I need a daily reminder that one is not obligated to have an immediate opinion on any situation relayed via a social distribution network optimized for hastiness, over-simplification, and maximum outrage. I don’t have my father’s resolve not to participate at all, but at least I can aim for more mindfulness. It all makes Aurelius feel more than simply relevant; the more I explore it, the more I find The Meditations an invaluable tool. Maybe with a little patience and teamwork, 2024 can mark the return of the cold take.

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