Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Into the Mystic - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.01
Meditation XII.01 – Into the Mystic - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
All those things at which you wish to arrive by a circuitous road, you can have now, if you do not refuse them to yourself.1 And this means, if you will take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence,2 and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice. Conformably to piety, that you may be content with the lot which is assigned to you, for nature designed it for you and you for it.3 Conformably to justice, that you may always speak the truth freely and without disguise, and do the things which are agreeable to law and according to the worth of each.4 And let neither another person's wickedness hinder you, nor opinion nor voice, nor yet the sensations of the poor flesh which has grown about you; for the passive part will look to this.5 If then, whatever the time may be when you shall be near to your departure, neglecting everything else you shall respect only your ruling faculty and the divinity within you,6 and if you shall be afraid not because you must some time cease to live, but if you shall fear never to have begun to live according to nature7 - then you will be a person worthy of the universe which has produced you, and you will cease to be a stranger in your native land, and to wonder at things which happen daily as if they were something unexpected, and to be dependent on this or that.8
(1) This is the Stoic version of what we know today as the ethic of reciprocity, or more familiarly, the Golden Rule. There are many expressions of this idea, but the most familiar modern phrasing is, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule comes naturally to the Stoic because in a real sense other persons are extensions of ourselves - because each of us shares not only a common genesis in Logos, but a common connection through Logos which is coextensive with the universe. In other words every human being is divine, and because there can be but one divinity, we are connected through the divine.
(2) The only reality in Stoicism in temporal terms is the present. The past cannot be altered, and the future is beyond our control.
(3) The sentiment here is similar to the modern Serenity Prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." The virtues Marcus recommends adopting to acquire acceptance are piety and justice. Serenity comes naturally to the Stoic through our acceptance of whatever role nature has assigned to us as part of nature's design. The only thing that the Stoic can actually change is opinion, and particularly the opinion that whatever happens to us, or whatever role we have been assigned, is not what we ought to have.
(4) Justice is the paramount virtue, and speaking "the truth freely and without disguise" and without regard to consequences, is fundamental to Stoic justice. "The worth of each" refers to the actions we are bound by duty to perform. We need to understand what actions are necessary, and what actions are irrelevant with respect to justice, and, we need to understand the consequences of our actions and inactions. Furthermore, all actions need to be tempered with prudence.
(5) These are the things that hinder right action. We fear that what we must do will result in bodily harm from others, or that we will acquire a bad reputation. But these things are absolutely unimportant to the Stoic. We ought never hesitate acting justly for these reasons. The sensations (physical or emotional) that we may experience as a consequence of right action are attached to the passive aspect or animal side of our nature. Justice is attached to the active or divine in us, and our first duty is always to the divine.
(6) The ruling faculty and divinity within you is your soul or reason. This aspect of human nature is not only divine, it is immutable, perfect, and immune from harm. Furthermore it is the only aspect of our nature that is fully autonomous.
(7) The only thing we ought ever fear is not living according to nature. This fear is of course real. The consequences of living contrary to nature are dire: a life of despair, alienation, slavery, addiction, anxiety and utter solitude. In living contrary to nature we lose our only opportunity to merge into the mystic.
(8) Your "native land" is the mystical universe of which you are a part, the Logos from which you spring, and the serenity and peace that will come to you if you live according to her will, and accept what happens to you in life, as part of her design.
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.