Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) grew up surrounded by beautiful things: great art and architecture, sumptuous foods, fine wines, and artfully tailored robes. When he assumed the title of Emperor of Rome, he had everything that he could possibly desire. Marcus, however, was a Stoic philosopher, so he knew that the law of life is change and that one should never let oneself become too attached or invested in material things. To maintain his composure in the midst of plenty, he would seek to transform the way that he saw the things that he desired. This helped him get a grip on his desires and achieve Stoic peace of mind.
Marcus’ approach to consumables and other possessions provides a handy guide for modern consumers who seek to overcome the allure of products that they want but don’t need. Instead of looking at clothes, jewelry, food, and art through the lens of desire, Marcus advises that we view these things as pure material objects and evaluate them accordingly. He outlines this technique in The Meditations as follows:
When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).
The best way to follow Marcus’ approach is to treat it as a practical exercise. This is the approach that I take to philosophical concepts in Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.
STEP 1. Think of some item that you have coveted or continue to covet, such as an expensive house, a car, or some fashionable item of clothing or jewellery. Give this item a name and write it on a sheet of paper. This is your item of desire.
STEP 2. Ask yourself: what is it that I find desirable about this item? Is it the look or design? The artistry that went into it? The social status that people attach to the item? The fragility or delicacy of it? The raw expression of power?
Try to be honest about what attracts you about the item. Jot your answers on the sheet of paper.
STEP 3. Now apply Marcus’ technique of material perception. Look at your item of desire and try describing it to yourself in strictly material terms. What stuff is it made of? Draw up a list of its material components. Forget about what you think of these components. Focus on the reality of the materials themselves. Are they soft, hard, squishy, rough? How do they sound when you scratch them with your nails? Are they common materials that are found everywhere, or rare materials derived from some far-off place?
Note that the work that went into making the item, while a material process, is not a material feature of the item as such, and must be disregarded. Only the physical stuff that makes up the item should enter into your description of it.
STEP 4. This brings us to the key step in the meditation. Try re-evaluating your item of desire seeing it as strictly material item. The goal here is to strip away everything glamorous and alluring about the item in question and to see it as a mere thing.
Take some time to meditate on the object before you. Ask yourself, in light of these meditations, is it really as desirable as you’d thought?
Often we overestimate the value of things. Dazzled by their superficial allure, we mistake our impressions for the thing itself. Stripping items back to their material components – cotton, wood, glass, metal, stone, plastic, whatever – can help us get critical distance on our desire for these items. By stripping items back to their components, we are able to see through the glamour of things and understand them as the objects that they really are.
Doing this won’t switch off your desire for material possessions. But if you dedicate yourself to practicing Marcus’s technique, you’ll find that you can develop the resilience to resist these desires when they start becoming a problem for you. If nothing else, the meditation can help you get clear on precisely what it is that you value about the things you desire. Often what we desire about objects is not the objective thing itself, but the social status that is associated with it. Other times what we see in objects is just our projection of value, or worse, someone else’s attribution of value that we’ve unthinkingly come to accept. In the case of things like smartphones and computers, we often come to see that it’s the functionality and connectivity that we desire, rather than the premium product itself. In the case of cars and fancy hotel rooms, we see that it’s access to transport and accommodation that we desire, rather than an expensive vehicle in the driveway or a suite at the Ritz.
Contemporary Stoics are collaborative consumers. They use ZipCar and AirBnB.
Practising Marcus’ Stoic technique sets you on a path of philosophical reflection that helps, over time, to reduce your desire for unnecessary possessions. So put yourself in training. Have the courage to change your thinking. This is how you can aspire to a philosophical life – a life of inner peace and deep personal rewards.