Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Tragic Christians - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XI.03

Meditation XI.03 - The Tragic Christians - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

What a soul that is which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist;1 but so that this readiness comes from your own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians,2 but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.3


(1) This statement should not imply Stoic confusion about an afterlife. There is no afterlife in the Stoic scheme. As Marcus implies throughout the meditations, the goal of living is happiness, and that happiness is a state that is not bound to a temporal metric. If it were, this would imply that happiness is somehow imperfect. The Christian scheme promises a life everlasting. The Stoics find this entirely unnecessary, and, frankly, illogical. If happiness must endure forever to be perfect, then happiness that does not endure must be imperfect. The reward for virtue in Stoicism is a serenity that can not be tarnished - or improved - by duration. Happiness simply is. And then we die. Still, the jury was out (and to be honest might always be out in any religious sense) on the issue of what happens to the human soul after death.

Stoicism is a materialistic philosophy - not a religion. The soul is a material entity, and - in theory at least - measurable, using the tools of physics. Those tools were not available in the second century. As discussed further in Meditation XI.16, the ancient Stoics would likely have seized on modern electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) and related tools as useful ways to measure brain rhythms, which, they certainly would have hypothesized as direct or indirect analogs of the activity of the soul. At the very least they would have studied these rhythms in their attempts to uncover the underlying laws of nature governing human activity. In effect Stoic physics would take on the same program as modern physics - but with a different goal. The question of whether the soul retained its integrity after death would probably have been resolved in the negative - had they had access to those tools. The forces and fields responsible for those activities are in fact not destroyed at death (energy is conserved - and the Stoics were intuitively aware of this), but, consistent with the second law of thermodynamics (the law of entropy increase - and the Stoics were also intuitively aware of this law as well), the cohesion of those forces and fields is certainly dispersed when the body dies and decomposes.

(2) Marcus Aurelius was irritated with the newly emergent Christian cult and its pernicious undermining of Roman traditions. While it is true that Christian and Stoic values seem to converge in many ways, this was due more to the appropriation of Stoic philosophy by the early Christian fathers in the early centuries of the Christian Church. From the perspective of Marcus, the Christians were a bizarre cult infested with a cohort of followers who seemed to seek death at every turn. Marcus's comment that our readiness for death ought to come "from your own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians," alludes to the unreasoned willingness that Christians appeared to display in seeking death in the name of their crucified leader. This was - to Marcus - patently illogical and irrational (and in his mind would have probably seemed as illogical and irrational as the willingness shown by the followers of a modern cult figure, such as Jim Jones). A Stoic is always ready to die, and will never fear death. But no good Stoic should seek death in the name of an absent leader in return for a new life in another kingdom - a kingdom which the Stoics clearly rejected.

(3) The Christians died as martyrs and did so in the name of their leader, Jesus Christ, and did so (in Marcus's view) not to persuade others, but to seek their eternal (and irrational) reward. Death - to Marcus - would be welcome to any Stoic and embraced, if death brought virtue and honor to the actor, or served to show others how one ought to live. The sacrificial deaths of Christians were to Marcus nothing more than a useless and "tragic show."

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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