Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stoicism and Doubt - Anticipating Descartes - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.12

Meditation X.12 - Stoicism and Doubt - Anticipating Descartes - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

What need is there of suspicious fear, since it is in your power to inquire what ought to be done?1 And if you see clearly, go by this way content, without turning back: but if you do not see clearly, stop and take the best advisers.2 But if any other things oppose you, go on according to your powers with due consideration, keeping to that which appears to be just.3 For it is best to reach this object, and if you do fail, let your failure be in attempting this. Whoever follows reason in all things is both tranquil and active at the same time, and also cheerful and collected.4


(1) Marcus is reflecting on his role as an emperor, and a leader's natural doubt around state decisions - decisions that would impact the lives of everyone in his enormous empire. Marcus knows all too well how conflicting forces - some sinister - will attempt to influence his thinking. Although he may be lacking all of the information needed to follow a particular course, he does have the power to seek advice and to retain counsel. In an era where Roman leaders were showered with constant praise and regarded as divinely inspired (a legacy that has been difficult to shake in the modern world), this admission is both intelligent and prudent. Marcus is not a god, and he knows this. He also understands that humility and modesty are critical virtues in following the right course. To do this he must constantly reject the adoration and flattery of others (please also see Meditation X.13b).

(2) Marcus realizes that the best advisors will be those who are able to think critically about military and geopolitical crises. The retention of advisors who tend to agree with the leader (flatterers) could lead to disaster.

(3) By provisionally following the course that "appears to be just," Marcus (and Stoicism in general) anticipates in part a methodology of doubt later advanced by Descartes (1596-1650) with respect to moral decisions. In Stoicism human morality is modeled on the law of nature which serves always as the template for morality. The law of nature is however never obvious, nor ever fully understood. We must first study nature, and interpret its nuances in human terms. Our understanding of this law will always be subject to revision and reinterpretation as nature reveals herself more fully to us. Revelation in Stoicism does not come from the gods, or from authority, or from inspired scripture - it comes to us from research, science, and systematic critical analyses.

(4) This is sage advice. We can only do our best by following reason. This is the path that secures peace of mind. Marcus is proclaiming a radical approach in an era where "divinely inspired" leaders frequently shot from the hip, consulted the stars, or otherwise acted irrationally in matters of state.

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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