Wednesday, June 10, 2009
The Calculus of Morality - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. IX.33
Meditation IX.33 - The Calculus of Morality - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
All that you see will quickly perish, and those who have been spectators of its dissolution will very soon perish too. And whoever dies at the extremest old age will be brought into the same condition with the one who died prematurely.1
(1) Marcus brings the mathematical notion of limits to bear on his observation here about the duration of a human life. Although the formal expression of infinitesimal limits did not appear until the eighteenth century with the development of the calculus by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727), Egyptian (the Moscow papyrus) and Greek geometers (Democritus) had toyed with the ideas in antiquity. In this observation Marcus notes that the ratio of any non-infinite time interval - such as the length of any human life - to the interval of time that the universe has existed (and will continue to exist) approaches zero as the denominator approaches infinity. Because in the Stoic scheme the universe has always existed and will always continue to exist, that ratio will always be zero for any human life - short or long. the duration of life is not only brief, it is, in the grand scheme of things, vanishingly small. As a meditative exercise this reflection is intended to engender humility, which is of course a virtue in itself. Vainglory, pride, and ambition (whether you are an emperor or a pauper) are senseless with this in mind. The laws of nature can be expressed as mathematical formulations, and a formulation itself - rightly understood - can be regarded as an expression of a perfect natural law, and as a template for virtue. Because nature's laws are perfect expressions of the operation of the divine intelligence, or Logos, a mathematical truth that attempts to express a law formally can be said to mirror the face of nature or the perfection of the law. These are the sorts of insights and understandings that meditative exercises can access. To witness the face of nature is to behold truth and beauty raw - in so doing there is no turning back. This truth and beauty can be overwhelming to the mathematical mind. Understanding how these formulations can be used as guidelines for ethical behavior is a goal of Stoic philosophy.
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.