Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Five Elements - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.20

Meditation XI.20 - The Five Elements - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Your aerial part1 and all the fiery parts2 which are mingled in you,3 though by nature they have an upward tendency,4 still in obedience to the disposition of the universe they are overpowered here in the compound mass (the body).5 And also the whole of the earthy part6 in you and the watery,7 though their tendency is downward,8 still are raised up and occupy a position which is not their natural one.9 In this manner then the elemental parts obey the universal,10 for when they have been fixed in any place, by necessity they remain there until again the universal shall sound the signal for dissolution.11 Is it not then strange that your intelligent part12 only should be disobedient and discontented with its own place?13 And yet no force is imposed on it,14 but only those things which are conformable to its nature:15 still it does not submit, but is carried in the opposite direction.16 For the movement towards injustice and intemperance and to anger and grief and fear is nothing else than the act of one who deviates from nature.17 And also when the ruling faculty is discontented with anything that happens,18 then too it deserts its post:19 for it is constituted for piety and reverence towards the gods20 no less than for justice. For these qualities also are comprehended under the generic term of contentment with the constitution of things, and indeed they are prior to acts of justice.21


(1) In Aristotelian and Stoic physics all passive matter was presumed to be a mixture, in varying proportions, of the four primary substances or elements, earth, water, air (aerial) and fire. A fifth unchanging element referred to as aether (also ether), or quintessence, was presumed to exist above the realm of the Earth and the principle element in the composition of the stars and planets. The Stoics modified this scheme by referring to aetherial (or etherial) substance as pneuma. Pneuma, unlike aether, was universally distributed and co-mingled with the other four elements in varying degree, and associated with the active principle of nature or Logos. Like aether, pneuma was considered indestructible. Unlike the passive elements, pneuma did not dissolve with the death of the body.

(2) The fiery element co-mingles with the body and generates the body's heat.

(3) The dissolution of the body at death begins with the release of the fiery part leaving the body cold.

(4) The natural motions of the four elements (when unrestrained) were upward (air and fire) and downward (earth and water).

(5) In Stoic physics, the overpowering of the natural motions of the four elements in the compound mass of the body would be regulated through the superior agency of the fifth element, the active element, pneuma. In Aristotelian physics the fifth element (aether) was not present in the sublunary realm (below the orbit of the moon) and consequently offered no equivalent conjecture as to why the four basic elements were overpowered in the body without the intervention of a fifth element.

(6) The earthy part would be the principle element of bone for example.

(7) The chief element in the composition of bodily fluids.

(8) Water flows downward, but fluids in the body can move upward.

(9) This argument would also apply to the animation of the entire body which, although composed mainly of earthy and watery elements, can overpower those natural tendencies when in motion, or when leaping into the air, or climbing a tree.

(10) The natural elements obey their universal tendencies, when not constrained by a superior power.

(11) The dissolution of the elements of the body will occur at death - an operation of nature signaled and predetermined by the disposition of the active principle of nature.

(12) The intelligent part (or active aspect of our nature) is distinct from the four elements, and never of necessity constrained by those four elements.

(13) We can disobey our natural intelligence and allow discontent into our lives because human beings are free to act in opposition to nature, but such attitudes are in opposition to the natural movement of the intelligent part which is otherwise unconstrained. In other words we have the free will to override our intelligence (see also Meditation XI.36).

(14) The only clear reason Stoics offer for overriding our natural intelligence is ignorance of the law of nature - although Stoicism does not disallow willful disobedience.

(15) The things that conform to the nature of intelligence are the same things that are conformable to divinity, such as justice and wisdom and the other virtues.

(16) The "opposite direction" in this case is the direction away from virtue.

(17) In other words the direction of vice.

(18) These estrangements away from nature form the basis for a wide spectrum of mental pathologies with significant modern relevance. These are discussed in detail in Meditation XI.19 (published in the book).

(19) The ruling faculty can "desert its post" because we are always free to do so. Again, we have free will.

(20) The ruling faculty is constituted to do what is best for the universe (or the community). See Meditation XII.14 for a discussion of what the Stoics mean by the "gods."

(21) In saying that these things are "prior to acts of justice," Marcus reminds us that the universe is beautiful and inherently good. Human beings need to understand this is so, and can see that this is so by examining nature. When we realize this existential truth, we will act justly. Absent this knowledge, human beings are predisposed to act in contrary ways, or in response to those things that their animal and emotional natures tell them are good.

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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