Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The Power and the Glory - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.26
Meditation X.26 - The Power and the Glory - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
A man deposits seed in a womb and goes away, and then another cause takes it, and labors on it and makes a child.1 What a thing from such a material! Again, the child passes food down through the throat, and then another cause takes it and makes perception and motion, and in fine life and strength and other things;2 how many and how strange I Observe then the things which are produced in such a hidden way,3 and see the power just as we see the power which carries things downwards and upwards, not with the eyes, but still no less plainly.4
(1) What Marcus forces us to notice with this, and with the next example about digestion, is that these two actions, copulation and eating, are 'according to nature.' They both trigger an array of hidden but beneficial consequences.
(2) This exclamation "What a thing from such a material," expressed with such joy, reminds us of the singular innocence of child-like wonder and amazement that comes to us from the apprehension of the seemingly miraculous chain of connections between the union of a single egg and sperm and a grown human being. From a modern perspective this insightful witness of connections ignited a scientific revolution in biological research, which has brought us in turn from Aristotle's pioneering embryonic research, to the decoding of the human genome. This is what the Stoics mean to teach us about nature. The digestive example illustrates how a simple and natural act, like eating an apple, is connected to a vast array of secondary consequences that reach out from the individual to the community.
(3) The poetic phrase, "how many and how strange," illustrates the diversity and surprise that nature reveals to us when we examine her "hidden" fabric. This curiosity is the necessary first step in Stoic enlightenment. We must examine nature. When we examine nature with the right motivation - that is without the utilitarian self-serving motivation of exploiting nature to serve our ends (a consequence of a modern trend that began with Descartes) - we see what true beauty is. This observational act (the word "Observe" is capitalized in the translation with purpose) is a seminal act in human intellectual growth. In our witness of beauty raw - we'll miss this if look to exploit or dominate nature - we see the good in its manifest perfection. This moment is the beginning of love and longing. The magnetic attraction of love is the force that will maintain all of our subsequent actions in life. This love of nature brings with it a recognition that we are connected to the object of love, part of it, and designed to bring about nature's destiny. This is where all of our subsequent joy from living arises - in the coming together and union of our intelligence, with the universal intelligence - because we come from this intelligence, Logos, and we seek to be in union with it. One does not need to be a scientist to experience this profound understanding. This is the drive underlying all art and music and creativity. This is the true underlying experience of love between two human beings, and the reason that this love can sustain us through adversity.
(4) Marcus's reference to power reminds us of the phrase "power and glory" used in the Lord's prayer and other Christian allusions to divinity. There is a more than subtle difference however between the Judeo-Christian concept of heavenly power, and its Stoic usage. In the Judeo-Christian scheme this power is transcendent. It is indeed good and beneficent and loving, but it is dominant, and we are submissive to its will. The Stoic concept of power is not transcendent. This power is in nature - although it is no less good, no less beneficent and no less loving. But, because Stoic power is in nature, it is also in us. We participate in and have access to this power when we live according to nature.
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.