Sunday, May 31, 2009
Rational Suicide - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.08
Meditation X.08 - Rational Suicide - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
When you have assumed these names, good, modest, true, rational, a person of equanimity, and magnanimous, take care that you do not change these names;1 and if you should lose them, quickly return to them.2 And remember that the term Rational3 was intended to signify a discriminating attention to every single detail and to do so with due diligence;4 and that Equanimity is the voluntary acceptance of the things which are assigned to you by the common nature;5 and that Magnanimity is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh,6 and above that poor thing called fame,7 and death,8 and all such things. If, then, you maintain yourself in the possession of these names, without desiring to be called by these names by others,9 you will be another person and will enter on another life.10 For to continue to be such as you have hitherto been, and to be torn in pieces and defiled in such a life, is the character of a very stupid person and one overfond of life,11 and like those half-devoured fighters with wild beasts, who though covered with wounds and gore, still plead to be kept to the following day, though they will be exposed in the same state to the same claws and bites.12 Therefore fix yourself in the possession of these few names: and if you are able to abide in them, abide as if you were removed to certain islands of the Happy.13 But if you shall perceive that you fall out of them and do not maintain your hold, go courageously into some nook where you shall maintain them,14 or even depart at once from life, not in passion, but with simplicity and freedom and modesty, after doing this one laudable thing at least in your life, to have gone out of it thus.15 In order, however, to the remembrance of these names, it will greatly help you, if you remember the gods,16 and that they wish not to be flattered, but wish all reasonable beings to be made like themselves;17 and if you remember that what does the work of a fig-tree is a fig-tree, and that what does the work of a dog is a dog, and that what does the work of a bee is a bee, and that what does the work of a human being is a human being.18
(1) To "assume these names" means to adopt these virtues. To "change these names" means to adopt the opposite values of each virtue, or the vices.
(2) Although Stoicism maintains that reason is infallible, human beings are influenced by a composite of rational and irrational impulses. Therefore to "lose a name" would mean allowing an irrational or emotional impulse to take precedence over the rational.
(3) The word "Rational" is capitalized in the original translation indicating an association, in this case, of the word with Logos, the ruling intelligence of the universe, and the source of all Reason.
(4) Complex situations require complex attention. The Stoics anticipated the hypothetico-deductive scientific approach to problem solving and Marcus here is advocating this approach in all non-trivial matters in life. Please also see Meditation X.09 for further discussion of this point.
(5) All human beings - indeed all sentient life in the universe - is regulated by Reason or Logos which is the common source of all things human.
(6) This of course is a key feature of Stoicism. The mind ought always take precedence over the body, its pleasures and its pains.
(7) Fame is a "poor thing" because only self-serving individuals will seek fame.
(8) Stoics never fear death. Death is in accord with nature. It happens to all and nothing virtuous is ever gained by postponing or avoiding or (except for rational suicide discussed in note 15 below ) deliberately seeking death (this was a criticism leveled at the early Christian cult). Those who take extraordinary measures to avoid death (or deliberately seek it as was the case with the early Christians), generally do so at the expense of others. With regard to death, nature ought to take its normal course.
(9) In other words virtue should be practiced with humility and modesty. To draw attention to virtue is self-serving.
(10) This is equivalent to the Christian idea of being "born again" (please see Meditation X.16).
(11) Living in vice effectively alienates us from the human community. Living is discord with nature leaves us alone in the universe, and desperately unhappy.
(12) This is a reference to a Roman gladiatorial tradition involving horrific confrontations with wild animals imported from Asia. Marcus opposed these practices and promoted restrictions on the practices, but they were prevalent throughout the empire, both before and after his reign.
(13) The "islands of the Happy" is a reference to the mythological Elysian Fields which were believed to be the final resting place of the blessed chosen by the gods. Neither Marcus Aurelius nor the Stoics believed in these notions, but the tradition was embedded in Greco-Roman consciousness, and Marcus, as emperor, was dutifully bound to uphold at least a nominal adherence to the official gods and their various traditions.
(14) Advocating a retreat "into some nook" is a gentle suggestion to revisit your values through meditation. This is the Stoic equivalent of seeking repentance. The difference between Christian repentance and the Stoic is that forgiveness comes not from God, but from yourself.
(15) Non-Stoics find this shocking. Marcus is advocating suicide to those who are unable or incapable of being virtuous. Remember that death to the Stoic is something that is viewed with indifference. Although Stoics should generally never seek death, this is a notable exception. Taking one's life in this situation is viewed as an act of courage which is a virtue and would convey happiness to the actor.
(16) Please see meditation XII.28 for the Stoic position on the gods.
(17) Please see Meditation X.13b for the Stoic position on flattery.
(18) The work of a human being is to keep the names listed in the first part of the meditation (see note 1 above). This is all that is required of a human being. This is the alpha and omega, our only reason for living, and the end of our existence.
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.