Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Stoic Enlightenment - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.05
Meditation XII.05 – Stoic Enlightenment - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
How can it be that universal intelligence, after having arranged all things well and benevolently for humanity, has overlooked this alone, that some persons and very good persons, and persons who, as we may say, have had most communion with the divinity, and through pious acts and religious observances have been most intimate with the divinity, when they have once died should never exist again, but should be completely extinguished?1
But if this is so, be assured that if it ought to have been otherwise, universal intelligence would have done it. For if it were just, it would also be possible; and if it were according to nature, nature would have had it so. But because it is not so, if in fact it is not so, be you convinced that it ought not to have been so: - for you see even of yourself that in this inquiry you are disputing with the diety; and we should not thus dispute with universal intelligence, unless she was most excellent and most just; - but if this is so, she would not have allowed anything in the ordering of the universe to be neglected unjustly and irrationally.2
(1) There is no afterlife in the Stoic scheme. From a narrow self-centered perspective this seems unfair or unjust, particularly for those who have led exemplary lives. But there is a flaw in the logic that presumes we ought to be rewarded for a virtuous life. Simply put, life is not about you. Our purpose in life is to contribute to the evolution of humanity. In doing this we are fulfilled; we are happy in fulfilling this role; and then will die. When we die our self-awareness is extinguished. But strictly speaking our intelligence does not die, any more than the gravitational field of the earth dies after it acts on an apple falling from a tree. The gravity remains to act on other things. Our self awareness is extinguished when we die, but the material essence - the law or pneuma that regulates our intelligence or reason in life - moves on after our death to act in nature in new ways. The gestalt shift in reasoning that we must experience in order to accept this seemingly unjust lack of reward, requires a shift away from the "opinion" that life is about the individual. For the Stoic, acting with virtue in life confers happiness on the actor. That happiness is a sublime state and is not subject to the metric of time. In other words, to be happy for a year is not better than being happy for a day. It is a state of being. Once we are happy, we are fulfilled. To suggest we need to be eternally happy implies that the longer we are happy, the better it will be. But that implies that happiness is somehow imperfect.
(2) Marcus is not suggesting that we should simply accept the fact that we are extinguished at death as a mystery that reflects the wisdom of supreme intelligence, and that the universal intelligence simply knows what is best for us, even if we do not. This is a sort of reasoning that is reflected in many religious traditions that imply that what "seems" unfair seems so only because we "mere" mortals are unaware of the grand plan of nature. This flaw in conventional religious thinking is generally "patched" by introducing the concept of "faith." Stoicism provides a modality of reasoning that allows us as individuals to arrive at this same universal awareness, without resorting to faith. We can reason ourselves to these same conclusions through meditation and a shift in attitude. In doing this the tension and anxiety most of us feel about death evaporates, in a manner similar to the enlightenment state experienced in the Buddhist tradition. In removing this tension we are able to clear our minds and become open to the experience of true happiness and serenity - in the here and now.
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.