Sunday, April 12, 2009

Stoic Serenity - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.03

Meditation XII.03 – Stoic Serenity - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

The things are three of which you are composed, a little body, a little breath (life), intelligence.1 Of these the first two are yours, so far as it is your duty to take care of them; but the third alone is properly yours.2 Therefore if you shall separate from yourself, that is, from your understanding, whatever others do or say, and whatever you have done or said yourself,3 and whatever future things trouble you because they may happen,4 and whatever in the body which envelops you or in the breath (life), which is by nature associated with the body,5 is attached to you independent of your will,6 and whatever the external circumfluent vortex whirls round,7 so that the intellectual power exempt from the things of fate can live pure and free by itself, doing what is just and accepting what happens and saying the truth: if you will separate, I say, from this ruling faculty the things which are attached to it by the impressions of sense, and the things of time to come and of time that is past, and will make yourself like Empedocles' sphere,8

All round, and in its joyous rest reposing;9 and if you shall strive to live only what is really your life, that is, the present - then you will be able to pass that portion of life which remains for you up to the time of your death, free from perturbations, nobly, and obedient to your own daemon (to the god that is within you).10


This meditation offers us an extraordinary example of Stoic serenity. It shows us how in separating ourselves from the cares of the world, we may enter into what can only be described as Stoic enlightenment - a state of being not unlike Buddhist enlightenment. The difference of course is that in disengaging from the cares of both the world and the self, the Stoic actually becomes deeply engaged in caring for and acting in the world. From the Stoic perspective the cares and fears that we have toward our own selves, toward our past and future, such as health, reputation, fear of failure, and so on, are the very things that prevent us from being fully human. These cares are the impediments that alienate us from others. By losing these we become truly free to experience the happiness that flows from behaving with courage and wisdom.

(1) Stoic physics distinguishes active and passive aspects of nature. While both are materialistic, the active component, pneuma (breath), or the soul, has characteristics it shares will all other animals. But the aspect of soul, which is unique to all sentient beings and which distinguishes us from other animals, is intelligence. The element of the soul we share with other animals might properly be called emotion.

(2) Intelligence is properly yours in the sense that this is the element that is unique to human beings and other sentient life forms in the universe.

(3) In other words, what is past is past, we cannot alter what wrongs we may have done in our lives. Marcus advises us to let go, and to disregard the opinions that past misdemeanors may have engendered.

(4) The fear of the future paralyzes many of us. We worry about our health, death, our financial security, our jobs. But none of these is relevant to the Stoic. We simply let go of all of these concerns. Free of these, we are released to act rightly in the world.

(5) Fears, both past and present, are always associated with the security of the body. But the body is incidental to where our true nature resides.

(6) What happens to the body is fundamentally beyond our reach. Our will is essentially powerless in preventing our death. Of course we are responsible for maintaining the body, keeping it safe, and maintaining its well-being. But this responsibility is not fundamentally different from our custodianship over material assets. As anyone would flee a burning house to save the integrity of the body from death, so too would the Stoic willingly flee the body to preserve the integrity of the soul from vice.

(7) The circumfluent vortex describes the swirling forces of destiny (love and strife), and the unforeseen events that we are unable to control or prevent: death comes to us all.

(8) An ancient cosmological concept attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Acragas (ca. 490–430 BCE). The sphere of Empedocles represents a state of pure existence immune to harm and free from strife.

(9) In separating ourselves from these forces we are fully human, fully immune from harm, completely engaged in virtue, and completely at peace.

(10) The daemon within is the voice of conscience, which Marcus refers to here as the god within. In other contexts this voice is synonymous with our human reason, or intelligence.

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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