Can You Get Through the Next Hour?
The Stoic method of division
The present can always be borne — if sliced thinly enough — and it is only the present that must be borne.
This aphorism of mine is in the Stoic spirit. It illustrates the Stoic method of division. Any process or procedure or undertaking which seems overwhelming or unbearable when surveyed as a whole can be managed if one breaks it down into its parts. Since it is not all at once, it needn't be managed and borne all at once. One does not run the marathon all at once, but stride by stride. The wise marathoner at the starting line does not remind himself that he must run the daunting distance of 26.2 miles; he just starts running. Near the end, when he is spent, he thinks only of the next step. One can always take another step, and only one step needs to be taken at each time.
Here is Pierre Hadot (The Inner Citadel, p. 133) quoting from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (XI, 3):
A seductive melody . . . you can despise it if you divide it into each of its sounds, and if you ask yourself if you are lesser than each one of them taken separately; if you are you would be filled with shame. The same thing will happen if you repeat this procedure in each figure . . . In general, then, and with the exception of virtue and its effects, remember to head as quickly as you can for the parts of a process, in order, by dividing them, to get to the point where you have contempt for them. Transpose this method, moreover, to life in its entirety.
What is Marcus saying in this strange passage?
Analysis destroys the seductiveness but also the fearfulness of processual wholes by decomposing them into temporal parts that can be easily negotiated. How will I get through this life of trial and tribulation with its “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”? How will I bear up under sickness, old age, and dying? I will do it day by day, hour by hour. One can always get through the next hour, minute, second. As Hadot puts it, "No object can make us lose our mastery over ourselves if we submit it to this method of division." (133)
There is a comparison worth exploring between the soteriological use to which Stoics put analysis and the use to which Buddhists put it, as in Milinda's Chariot. But that is a large topic for another occasion.