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Golden mean

It’s that time of year again where lots of the media is shrieking at us about detoxing.

The saturnalian month of December is over; puritanical January is with us, and with it the annual call for self-flagellation. Saturnalia (feast) and puritanism (fasting) are, in my opinion, two sides of the same coin and both great for feeling satisfied, or even smug, with or about yourself. My view is that both activities demand a pretty unpleasant level of self-absorption, and as I get older I find both more and more questionable. It may be that I am turning into a follower of Cicero. 

Cicero, the modern world’s godfather of Stoicism, is a fascinating man in many, many regards (not least the political life he led), but it is moral letters, his philosophy, based on Zeno and others, which interest me most at this time of year. He knew a thing or two about those ‘two imposters’ of Kipling’s famous poem, and dealt with triumph and disaster in barrowfuls in his own life. The most moving of all his letters for me are those dealing with his profound grief upon the death of his young daughter Tullia, and making sense of that grief as a stoic, a follower of the Greek philosophical school of thought which argued that you should learn to take both the ups and downs in life with comparative calm and aim always for a ‘golden mean’. 

Cicero is an example to us, not just because of his very considerable professional and political triumphs (rather too loudly self-proclaimed for modern ears), but more so because of his disasters, personal and public. As a Stoic he aimed not to ricochet from the negative to the positive, and vice versa, but to keep an even keel throughout all that life threw at him. And it threw a lot. Not just the death of his Tullia but also the turning to ashes of his (utterly naïve, with our advantage of hindsight) plans to save the Roman Republic from men such as Pompey, Mark Anthony, and Octavian. 

Did Cicero learn from his mistakes? Can we learn from ours? Is a golden mean achievable or is life forever a roller-coaster of success, disaster; happiness, disappointment; excess and fasting? Is the answer to live a life away from all fear of the negative? Should we, like Epicureans of old, withdraw from difficulty and keep ourselves safe and secure from the world? 

No. That’s an impossible option, particularly nowadays in a world which is so very much more interconnected even than when John Donne wrote his famous line, ‘No man is an island entire of itself’. I think the answer to living a happy and successful life is that we accept that we make mistakes, that we learn from our mistakes, that we grow stronger from the difficulties hurled at us, that we share our experiences and support one another. We celebrate all the joys of life and don’t nag ourselves for doing so. And we don’t weigh our worthiness by how many pounds we have shed in January or how many perfect mince pies we have baked in December. 

I recommend at this time of year a healthy disregard for those who want to make life a misery and who take superficial things too seriously. I recommend aiming instead for that very old fashioned virtue, humility, and for an acceptance that an awful lot of the concerns we are invited to care for are about as trivial as one could dream of. I recommend Cicero and Stoicism in times of trial. I recommend looking outwards and eschewing self-absorption. The minute you can see your life as part of something more important than just yourself, then this seems to me to make much more sense of the lumps and bumps in life, and of the joys too. 

So my resolution for 2015 is to be less self absorbed. To learn from my mistakes. To embrace difficulty. To aim for humility. To weave my life’s thread in amongst those of others’. To keep on learning. 

I wish you all a wonderful 2015.

Tagged  Reflection  Values