Thursday, April 16, 2009

Universal Human Rights - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.37

Meditation XI.37 – Universal Human Rights - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Epictetus also said, We must discover an art (or rules) with respect to giving our assent;1 and in respect to our movements we must be careful that they be made with regard to circumstances,2 that they be consistent with social interests,3 that they have regard to the value of the object;4 and as to sensual desire, we should altogether keep away from it;5 and as to avoidance (aversion) we should not show it with respect to any of the things which are not in our power.6


(1) The assent refers to matters of morality - although the prescription offered here could well be applied to critical thinking generally. The rules of morality come from nature. They are universal, and they can be discovered by anyone who looks to nature for guidance.

(2) This involves prudence. Movements are essentially the strategic elements involved in taking actions that benefit the community. It is not sufficient to simply do the "right" thing. Every circumstance will have mitigating factors that need to be considered carefully before taking action (or giving assent).

(3) When we consider the social interest, we must consider also the impact that moral actions may have, even on those who may disapprove of the action. How are all interests taken into account? Marcus is really advocating that all of the political implications of any action be weighed carefully. This does not mean that political actions ought to be watered down, or compromised. Stoics are expected to be resolute, but never impulsive.

(4) In Stoicism value is attached only to virtue, so the object under discussion here can only be a virtuous act. Furthermore, no virtuous act is ever considered of greater value than any other. However, it is possible that some actions around which assent is sought may not be virtuous at all, in which case the action sought (the object) is really secondary, because it refers to an action around an issue that deals with a matter about which the Stoic is really morally indifferent.

(5) Neither Epictetus nor Marcus opposes sensual desire - sensuality is simply an area of indifference on the moral plane. This comment really means that no object requiring assent ought ever be influenced by considerations of sensuality.

(6) The things that are not in our power include the talents we have, the bodies we inherit, and the various accidents of life such as our gender, race, age, economic class, sexuality, etc. This comment is thus a powerful early statement of universal human rights. No person ought ever be excluded as the beneficiary of virtuous actions for any of these accidents. Justice ought always be blind.

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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