Thursday, May 7, 2009
The Stoic Forgives, But Never Forgets - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.08
Meditation XI.08 - The Stoic Forgives, But Never Forgets - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too anyone when separated from another has fallen off from the whole social community. Now as to a branch, another cuts it off, but if you by your own act separate yourself from your neighbor when you hate him and turn away from him, and you do not know that you have at the same time cut yourself off from the whole social system. Yet you have this privilege certainly from the universal intelligence who framed society, for it is in your power to grow again to that which is near to you, and to become a part which helps to make up the whole. However, if it often happens, this kind of separation, it makes it difficult for that which detaches itself to be brought to unity and to be restored to its former condition. Finally, the branch, which from the first grew together with the tree, and has continued to have one life with it, is not like that which after being cut off is then ingrafted, for this is something like what the gardeners mean when they say that it grows with the rest of the tree, but that it has not the same mind with it.1
(1) As this simile illustrates, becoming alienated from the entire human community is something we as human beings choose for ourselves - and the consequences can be lasting. We ourselves choose to become self-regarding over other-regarding, and when we do so, we are always acting contrary to the will of nature. This fall from social union is never seen as something that is instigated by others. We always do this to ourselves. Modern commentators might view this as "blaming the victim." It might seem on face value insensitive to those who have been cast out of their social roles unfairly for discriminatory reasons. However, from a Stoic perspective, such discriminations will never be done by those who are acting rightly. Anyone who discriminates against anyone else is already like a branch removed from the tree. Their actions are always self-serving, and the community they are ejected from is not really a community at all in the Stoic sense. It is rather a dysfunctional community made up of those whose relationships with others are relationships of convenience or utility. The meditation is directed toward those who reject the true community of other-serving citizens, who in truth are prepared to welcome anyone into its fold. In this case the choice to break with society has been made willingly, and with full knowledge of the consequences. But even so, the Stoic will always presume that the choice was made out of ignorance, and the Stoic is expected to show compassion, and to take whatever measures available to reintegrate this self-exiled member back into the community. Marcus does appear to be fairly cautious about this however. Those who choose to become self-regarding - especially those who do so repeatedly - have great difficulty in reestablishing their full community status. They are - as he states here - like a graft. They can and do grow with the tree again, and can indeed flourish, but they do not have the "same mind" as before. A Stoic will always be ready to forgive. But a Stoic will never forget.
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.