Thursday, March 26, 2009
The Gods - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.28
Meditation XII.28 - The Gods - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
To those who ask, 'Where have you seen the gods,1 or how do you comprehend that they exist and so worship them?' I answer, in the first place, they may be seen even with the eyes;2 in the second place, neither have I seen even my own soul and yet I honor it.3 Thus then with respect to the gods, from what I constantly experience of their power, from this I comprehend that they exist and I venerate them.4
(1) In his capacity as Emperor, Marcus Aurelius would be expected to proclaim and protect the official state religion and maintain his allegiance to a polytheistic mix of gods from several cultural traditions. In his capacity as a Stoic philosopher Marcus generally makes reference to a single divine entity, the universal intelligence or Logos. This meditation offers an example of the ways in which he would reconcile what might seem irreconcilable positions.
(2) Perhaps Marcus is being cagey here. When we look at nature closely and deeply, we see the actions or affects of the operation of reason on a grand scale. Because the Stoic associates these actions of natural law as guided by a perfect and immutable material essence (Logos), he can claim that, at the very least, he has witnessed the acts of a divine power. From an evidential perspective, if those actions can only be performed by a divine power, then to witness the actions of nature is to witness the divinity. Taking this one step further, The reference to the "eyes" need not mean the physical eye, but the eye of reason in each of us. Since that eye is itself distilled from Logos and is in each of us, the witness Marcus refers to here is something that occurs every time we engage in meditation because the meditative act requires an internal withdrawal into the source of our humanity, our soul.
(3) Marcus can not see that which is really formless. So it makes no sense to see the soul. But the soul animates the body, and we do certainly witness the actions of the body, and we do know that those actions can only be attributed therefore to actions of the soul. From this perspective we must therefore honor the soul. This is fairly obvious. We can witness the fall of an apple from a tree and attribute that action to gravity, a very real physical force which we have no trouble honoring - even though we will never see gravity. In the Stoic scheme this same force would be evidence of the operation of Logos.
(4) A modern Stoic might readily reconcile the powers of the gods as simply the several manifestations of the various forces of nature in their various modern guises. In this sense the existence and veneration of the gods Marcus refers to here, is nothing more than an acknowledgment of the existence of the several forces of nature, which in antiquity were many. A modern Stoic might also recognize that the several forces of nature as currently understood in modern physics (gravity, electric, nuclear, weak, strong, etc.) might well be the manifestation of a single unified power that expresses itself in varying ways.
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.