Sunday, May 31, 2009

Scientific Method Founded in Stoicism - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.09

Meditation X.09 - Scientific Method Founded in Stoicism - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Useless luxuries, foreign wars, personal insecurities, numbness and apathy, slavish addictions, will daily wipe out those holy principles of yours.1 How many things without studying nature do you imagine, and how many do you neglect?2 But it is your duty so to look on and so to do everything, that at the same time the power of dealing with circumstances is perfected, and the contemplative faculty is exercised, and the confidence which comes from an understanding of each of these issues is maintained without showing it, but yet not concealed.3 For when will you enjoy simplicity, when gravity, and when the understanding of each of these issues, both what it is in substance, and what place it has in the universe, and how long it is formed to exist and of what things it is compounded, and to whom it can belong, and who are able both to give it and take it away?4


(1) This surprisingly familiar litany of life's many distractions comes from the 2nd century. It could just as well have been penned in the 21st century. Whether you are Stoic, humanist, or devoutly religious, the challenge of engaging a principled life, while confronting a fragmented world of private and public distractions, can feel overwhelming. Whatever "holy principles" or personal philosophies we hold are constantly undermined by the noise of living.

(2) Marcus maintains that the Stoic who has studied and understood nature will be able to confront all of these apparent distractions, without fear of losing out to imagined fears, and without neglecting virtue or ideals.

(3) Living in a complex society does not threaten the Stoic. Nor does the Stoic hide or run from these challenges. The pressures of life are regarded rather as opportunities for refining our ability to confront circumstances. The more complex and varied the challenges, the more we need to exercise and thereby perfect our powers of reason. Our goal in a crisis is to understand the dilemma, and to develop a strategy for resolving the issue. This is where the "bring it on" fatalism of Stoicism is most helpful. Rather than provoking a so-called crisis of faith, life challenging situations actually strengthen personal resolve. The Stoic understands that whatever comes our way was meant to be, and is, in a real sense, part of our destiny. The Stoic also understands that nature has endowed each of us with the intellectual talents to confront complexity.

(4) The joy of Stoicism emanates from its other-directed focus. Inured against pain and fortified by invincibility, the Stoic approaches every situation with the confidence of a Sherlock Holmes. Nothing can stand in our way when we accept that nothing can harm us. No problem is ever intractable. The analytic model outlined here will always provide the understanding we require for a resolution. The heuristic methodology sketched out by Aurelius is highly sophisticated critical thinking involving both reductionist and synthetic tactics that anticipate modern approaches in science by two thousand years. This is really the core of the hypothetico-deductive scientific method - outlined here fifteen hundred years before Galileo's pioneering application of this sort of reasoning at the beginning of the modern era. The approach requires that we understand that everything that occurs in nature is under the influence of a law, or a complex interaction of laws. We must accept that there are no occult forces at work in the universe. The approach requires that we first break each problem into its component elements; we then attempt to understand each element in its own right; this is done by applying the various hypotheses that determine the behaviors of each element on its own; then, we bring the components together in order to understand the behavior of the system.

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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