Friday, May 15, 2009
The Blazing Fire of Stoicism - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.31
Meditation X.31 - The Blazing Fire of Stoicism - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
When you have seen Satyron the Socratic, think of either Eutyches or Hymen, and when you have seen Euphrates, think of Eutychion or Silvanus, and when you have seen Alciphron think of Tropaeophorus, and when you have seen Xenophon think of Crito or Severus, and when you have looked on yourself, think of any other Caesar, and in the case of every one do in like manner.1 Then let this thought be in your mind, Where then are those men? Nowhere, or nobody knows where. For thus continuously you will look at human things as smoke and nothing at all;2 especially if you reflect at the same time that what has once changed will never exist again in the infinite duration of time.3 But you, in what a brief space of time is your existence? And why are you not content to pass through this short time in an orderly way? What matter and opportunity for your activity are you avoiding? For what else are all these things, except exercises for the reason, when it has viewed carefully and by examination into their nature the things which happen in life?4 Persevere then until you shall have made these things your own, as the stomach which is strengthened makes all things its own, as the blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.5
(1) Other than serving up a list of colorful and nearly extinct names from the Greco-Roman epoch, we might just as easily have translated these names as Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane. It is the interchangeable nature of the name pairs that Marcus asks us to notice. Life is impossibly short, and, as Meditation X.34 reinforces, each of us, in our fleeting experience with existence, soon expires. Our presence here, our ephemeral encounter with fame, and even the memory of our name (and even the names themselves), soon turn to ash, like the fallen leaves of Autumn.
(2) No one knows where these men are, and fewer care. Human life and human things are as irrelevant as smoke (please see also Meditation XII.33, "Ashes and Smoke").
(3) Marcus is confident that human life and existence is governed by universal law. The concept of change as an inviable law of nature (essentially the second law of thermodynamics, or the law of entropy which was intuitively apprehended by the Stoics), and the belief that the universe is of "infinite duration," derive from Stoic understanding of the physics and cosmology developed in the ancient world. The core features of these principles and their contingent moral implications have not substantively shifted in the subsequent centuries. The Stoics also proffered an ekpyrotic cosmic theory - in essence, positing an infinite series of cosmic cycles - each beginning with a big bang, followed by a big crunch. Similar cosmological theories exist today (for more on this please see the book, "Glossary," p. 233).
(4) These comments reflect on the Stoic perception of life's challenges as nothing more than a series of exercises in reason. Nothing that comes our way ought to deflect us from being simple and good. In fact, challenges and misfortunes are generally seen - not as detouring counter-forces - but as opportunities for the development of reason, and for the exercise of virtue.
(5) Acting rightly does not come easily. It requires training and hard work. We need to study nature and we need to understand nature's lessons. But although this is difficult, it is as natural as the operation of the stomach - reflect on a growing infant as she "learns" to adjust to solid foods. When we apprehend the truth, we will proceed, in justice, in every step we take - like the "blazing fire" used in the symbol of Stoicism.
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.