Monday, March 23, 2009

Ashes and Smoke - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.33

Meditation XII.33 - Ashes and Smoke - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

How does the ruling faculty1 make use of itself? for all lies in this.2 But everything else,3 whether it is in the power of your will or not,4 is only lifeless ashes and smoke.5


(1) The ruling faculty is the mind or soul (psyche) sometimes referred to as reason.

(2) Marcus does not discount the body. It is indeed real, but it is the mind or reason that distinguishes our humanity. Whatever the body is and whatever sensations it experiences pale in comparison to the mind. The sentiment expressed here toward those things that are not of the mind is Stoic indifference toward the body and its sensations. Our central duty in life is to make proper use of the mind. It is only the mind that can determine value.

(3) By "everything else" Marcus means the other faculties we may deploy. These will include the five bodily senses and their sensations.

(4) The pleasures or pains we experience are sense based. They may or may not be under the control of our will. Generally though these require a degree of cooperation from others, and therefore are not always within the power of our will.

(5) This phrase is echoed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, 'from ashes to ashes, dust to dust' - as part of the funeral service. The Stoic phrase is intended in the same spirit. The body is a temporary and fragile thing and irrelevant when measured against the soul (Anglican example) or reason (Stoic example).

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.

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