Sunday, May 3, 2009
The Power of Soul - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.16
Meditation XI.16 - The Power of Soul - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
As to living in the best way, this power is in the soul, if it be indifferent to things which are indifferent.1 And it will be indifferent, if it looks on each of these things separately and all together,2 and if it remembers that not one of them produces in us an opinion about itself, nor comes to us;3 but these things remain immovable, and it is we ourselves who produce the judgments about them,4 and, as we may say, write them in ourselves, it being in our power not to write them,5 and it being in our power, if by necessity these judgments have imperceptibly got admission to our minds, to wipe them out;6 and if we remember also that such attention will only be for a short time, and then life will be at an end.7 Besides, what trouble is there at all in doing this?8 For if these things are according to nature, rejoice in them, and they will be easy to you:9 but if contrary to nature, seek what is conformable to your own nature, and strive towards this,10 even if it bring no reputation;11 for each of us is allowed to seek our own good.12
(1) The Stoic soul or psyche is not the obscure intangible and indefinable object of religious traditions. Even in the ancient world the Stoics understood the soul as a materially defined and localized entity. If we take Stoic principles literally, the soul or its properties should therefore be accessible and measurable using the techniques of physics. The ancient Stoics would marvel at modern electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) with their detection of alpha, beta, delta, and theta waves, and other measurables of brain activity. These electromagnetically generated signals, they would conclude, are actually analogs of active mind-based human rhythms - in effect, they are direct measurements of the soul at work. These responses of the soul can be triggered by many things. The notion of "indifference" in this meditation applies to those areas of living that ought to trigger indifferent cognitive responses. This - the Stoic will claim - is a matter of choice and attitude. The pleasure-pain and fight-flight responses, in particular, are important, but only for bodily survival, and ought (in Stoicism) to trigger the appropriate cognitive responses (panic and addiction are examples of what the Stoics would say would be inappropriate cognitive responses). But these areas have nothing to do with "living in the best way," or living harmoniously with nature, or being virtuous.
(2) The Stoic would take a detached clinical perspective around areas of indifference. See indifferent things as they are, and understand why they exist, and for what purposes.
(3) The acquisition of an expensive material possession might drive us to extremes. We might work for years to save up for a fast sports car. But this object, the car, once we have it, has no "opinion" about itself. A similar argument can be made about all of our physical pleasures, or the pains that we spend an inordinate amount of time, money and energy trying to avoid.
(4) The view that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain is the reason we exist is a judgment call. None of the pleasures or pains of life are in any sense important in terms of their influences over what really matters in life. They have no opinions about themselves.
(5) We have the power to see the difference between what is truly vital, and what is indifferent. We can "write" those differences onto our souls.
(6) We also have the power to "wipe out" those judgments that have in the past obscured our real reasons for living.
(7) This approach - to remember that it is easy to shift a long-held attitude, if we look at the brevity of life - has been subsumed into a variety of twelve-step approaches to addiction recovery. In the words of those programs, we can resolve these sometimes difficult addictions and our attitudes toward addictions by rewriting our personal scripts on a daily basis, and doing this "one day at a time."
(8) The "one day at a time" approach does work. It is a manageable and "trouble" free way to deal with seemingly intractable problems.
(9) Following nature will be painless and be a cause for rejoicing because the objects in this approach do give opinions about themselves, and those objects are both beautiful and good for those who choose to examine them.
(10) If things are contrary to nature, we ought to be indifferent toward them. We will be indifferent if we truly see them as they are, and notice that these things are indeed not conformable to our true nature.
(11) One of the difficulties we have in dealing with addictions, for example, is the isolation that our abandonment of those addictions brings. We lose the community of peers that are so often held together by the addiction. This feels like a loss of "reputation." But reputation in the Stoic scheme is nothing other than a form of fame - something we seek to bring comfort to our ego. It is really self-serving, and in opposition to nature. Our true goal in life must be other-serving. This is what will bring us real and lasting happiness.
(12) We have the power to act in ways that are unique to our own gifts and abilities. The virtues we have, and the ways we may express these define our individual paths.
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.