Sunday, March 29, 2009
Physics, Cosmology and Morality - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.21
Meditation XII.21 - Physics, Cosmology and Morality - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist which you now see, nor any of those who are now living.1 For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.2
(1) This meditation reflects on how observations based on Stoic physics and cosmology provide moral guidance. Stoics understood time as having no beginning and no end. The cosmos itself flows through never ending cycles of cosmic expansions and contractions (big bangs followed by big crunches). These cycles bring about transformations and the consequent dissolutions of all things in the universe. From a physical perspective the Stoics drew on this model to infer a law of nature: everything changes and dissolves. The only constant through this being the sum total of the elements that constitute the universe. In modern terms these can be understood as the application of the thermodynamic laws of energy (conserved) and entropy (always increasing) to the moral realm.
(2) The moral teaching deduced from these physical laws is profound humility. Nothing we acquire, or do for ourselves in this life has any real permanence. The wealth we seek, the fame we acquire, the possessions we accumulate, all disappear leaving nothing of us in time, not even a footprint, not even an echo. The basis for being proud or self-seeking is therefore meaningless and futile. If this is so, our lives are really meaningless - unless our duty and purpose in life is something other than pursuing these things.
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 The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book.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.