Saturday, April 4, 2009
Becoming Invincible - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.08
Meditation XII.08 – Becoming Invincible - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Contemplate the essential principle (formal cause – see Meditation XII.29) of things bare of their coverings;1 the purposes of actions;2 consider what pain is,3 what pleasure is,4 and death,5 and fame;6 who is to himself the cause of his uneasiness;7 how no one is hindered by another;8 that everything is opinion.9
(1) To discover the formative cause or principle of a human being, we must strip away the body, which to Marcus is nothing more than a covering. When we do this, we are left with the essential nature of a human being, the soul, or the active intelligence. In Stoicism of course the soul is not spirit, but the material essence that regulates the body's actions. In modern language we would regard the Stoic soul as the net sum of the various electrochemical impulses of the mind and nervous system. These are, in essence, physical forces mediated by neurons and brain chemistry. The laws governing these impulses are universal; they are the same in every human being, and indeed would be the same in all sentient life throughout the universe. It is these laws that the Stoic seeks to understand in order to understand nature.
(2) All human action will be purpose driven. Right actions are those that conform to nature. Because nature is intrinsically cooperative, outwardly directed cooperative actions conform to nature. Inwardly directed self-serving actions conflict with nature’s intent.
(3) Marcus means us to understand that pain is neither a bad thing nor good. It is simply a bodily sensation. The Stoic attitude toward pain is typically one of indifference. What this means in practice is that we ought never use the prospect of imminent pain as a reason for deferring virtuous actions (actions that conform to the will of nature).
(4) By the same token, pleasure is neither good nor bad. We may certainly enjoy pleasures, but the prospect of losing or gaining pleasure ought never deter us from right action, or virtue.
(5) Death is something that comes to us all. It is an act of nature. It is something we should therefore never fear. What Marcus says about pleasure and pain applies also to death. While we naturally will do what we should do to avoid death, we ought never use the prospect of death as a reason for not doing what is right for others, or for the community.
(6) Many seek fame. Marcus regards fame as nothing more than the collective opinion of others. Since those opinions are often based on false values, we ought to remain indifferent to fame or reputation. The same should be said for bad reputation (or infamy). It matters little what the opinion of others might be, particularly if those opinions are pinned upon false values.
(7) Uneasiness occurs for many reasons. But to the Stoic most of our uneasiness arises from our attachments to false values. We can remove our uneasiness by shifting values.
(8) No one can hinder us from forming a right opinion. If we feel hindered in life in any way, a close examination of our values will remove this feeling.
(9) Stoics refer to “opinion” in the sense of attitude toward something, particularly toward values. Opinion is something that we have the power to change. False opinions are those that regard pleasure, pain, fame (or reputation), or power as being things that are good (or bad in the case of pain) and worth pursuing (or avoiding). But to the Stoic these are all take-it-or-leave-it pursuits – irrelevant really with respect to where real value lies. The essential test whether a value is truly good is whether you can always procure that value independently of others or independently of chance.
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.