Sunday, May 17, 2009

Historical Cycles - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.27

Meditation X.27 - Historical Cycles - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Constantly consider how all things such as they now are, in time past also were; and consider that they will be the same again. And place before your eyes entire dramas and stages of the same form, whatever you have learned from your experience or from older history; for example, the whole court of Hadrian, and the whole court of Antoninus, and the whole court of Philip, Alexander, Croesus;1 for all those were such dramas as we see now, only with different actors.2


(1) Antoninus (ruled 138-161 CE) and Hadrian (ruled 117-138 CE) were two emperors of Rome, and the immediate predecessors of Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180 CE). Philip II (382-336 BCE) and his son Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) were rulers of Macedon. Croesus (595-546 BCE) ruled Lydia from 560 until 547 BCE.

(2) The notion of history as a rolling series of 'every-day-getting-better-in-every-way' forward-moving progressive steps, is a relatively recent concept, seeded at the beginning of the scientific revolution. This unchallenged idea is hopelessly embedded into modern thinking, and heard incessantly in the constant "moving forward" refrains of contemporary economists, business leaders, and politicians. This contemporary idea stems from a misreading of Darwin's evolutionary theory of natural selection. Species with traits best adapted to environmental pressures will survive; when the environment changes, other species will survive. Survival is a matter of chance. Given the right environmental conditions (for example, sea-levels rising so as to inundate all land), evolution does not preclude the possibility of humans evolving back into fish, an event that may or may not be seen as a "progressive" step.

In antiquity history was seen as a never ending cyclical process. The stages, and even the theaters changed (Marcus refers to Rome, Macedon and Lydia in his references), and new actors moved in. But, the dramas remained essentially the same. With respect to our thirst for immortality, the meditative lesson is designed to assist in overcoming the fear of death. What is there to fear? We gain nothing by holding on to life.

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 The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book.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