Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Pitiful Tyrant - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.25

Meditation XI.25 - The Pitiful Tyrant - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Socrates excused himself to Perdiccas1 for not going to him, saying, "It is because I would not perish by the worst of all ends, that is, I would not receive a favor and then be unable to return it."2


(1) The reference is to the treachery or injustice of Perdiccas II of Macedon and events surrounding the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BCE, one of the catalysts for the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. Socrates was an Athenian soldier in this battle. The meditation reflects on a hypothetical proposition presented to a fictional representation of Socrates in Plato's dialog Gorgias. One of the central themes in the dialog is that of the "pitiful tyrant." The essence of the argument, presented by Plato's Socrates, is that those who do injustice ought to be pitied because doing injustice makes you unhappy. A tyrant would be the unhappiest of all because of the degree of injustice he inflicts.

(2) If Socrates were to go to Perdiccas, he would most likely be killed. Socrates, rather than viewing this as a bad thing for himself, as Perdiccas certainly would see it, actually views it as a good thing, or a "favor." But the now dead Socrates (in this hypothetical scenario), would no longer be in a position to return the favor. Thus, Socrates could not "[go] to him." This response by Socrates turns normal (non-Stoic) logic on its head. But, the logic is not inconsistent with the Stoic position on death, or perceived injustice. In fact, the Stoic is completely indifferent about death. Death itself is neither good nor bad. But, by killing Socrates, a virtuous man, Perdiccas would become completely miserable, because his soul would be completely alienated from reason. Socrates would see this as a favor - not because Socrates wishes to die - but, in making Perdiccas more wretched than he already might be, Socrates would be teaching him an important lesson about virtue (this teaching itself would be a virtuous act by Socrates), and it is the duty of the Stoic to take whatever measures are necessary to show where virtue lies.

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 The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book.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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