Monday, June 1, 2009

The Chemistry of the Universe - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.07

Meditation X.07 - The Chemistry of the Universe - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

The parts of the whole, everything, I mean, which is naturally comprehended in the universe, must of necessity perish; but let this be understood in this sense, that they must undergo change. But if this is naturally both an evil and a necessity for the parts, the whole would not continue to exist in a good condition, the parts being subject to change and constituted so as to perish in various ways.1 For whether did nature herself design to do evil to the things which are parts of herself, and to make them subject to evil and of necessity fall into evil, or have such results happened without her knowing it?2 Both these suppositions, indeed, are incredible.3 But if we should even drop the term Nature (as an efficient power),4 and should speak of these things as natural, even then it would be ridiculous to affirm at the same time that the parts of the whole are in their nature subject to change, and at the same time to be surprised or vexed as if something were happening contrary to nature, particularly as the dissolution of things is into those things of which each thing is composed.5 For there is either a dispersion of the elements out of which everything has been compounded, or a change from the solid to the earthy and from the airy to the aerial,6 so that these parts are taken back into the universal reason, whether this at certain periods is consumed by fire or renewed by eternal changes.7 And do not imagine that the solid and the airy part belong to you from the time of generation.8 For all this received its accretion only yesterday and the day before, as one may say, from the food and the air which is inspired.9 This, then, which has received the accretion, changes, not that which your mother brought forth.10 But suppose that this which your mother brought forth implicates you very much with that other part, which has the peculiar quality of change, this is nothing in fact in the way of objection to what is said.11


(1) The whole is the totality - all of the matter in the universe consisting of four passive components (earth, water, air and fire) and one active component, pneuma. Logos is the organizing rational constituent of Nature and is comprised of pneuma. The active component acts upon the passive giving rise to changes. That those changes occur, and must occur of necessity in a certain direction, is the subject of the meditation. Marcus is asking us to consider whether something in nature that is a necessity, could also be an evil.

(2) Nature, in Stoic logic, equates with divinity, and is thereby inherently perfect, and good. It is therefore logically inconsistent that Nature would either not know how how her parts behaved (in which case nature would be deficient), or that Nature would have designed an inherently evil process as part of her natural operation.

(3) This would be incredible, and inconsistent with the basic premise that Nature is good.

(4) Marcus asks us to consider the same question about a Nature that - for the moment - was not the divine and all-knowing organizing architect of the universe that Stoicism considers Nature to be.

(5) Considering these processes as simply "natural" (as opposed to the operations of a divine Nature) Marcus is allowing a position similar to the perspective of science in the modern world. He asks us to simply assume that the universe evolves according to a set of physical laws. However, if the dissolution of matter into its component parts was the result of the operation of physical laws, and this also produced unintended consequences, then this too would be logically inconsistent.

(6) Marcus is postulating the internal mechanism that might give rise to the dissolution or decay of substances. How that might proceed was not fully articulated or understood by the Stoics. He suggests (as an example) that a compound EA consisting of Earth E and Air A could decay in one of two ways. In the first instance the dissolution of the substance EA would would follow the following path,

EA -> E + A

in which case E and A would be assumed to retain their pre-decay characteristics.

In the second possibility the substance EA might decay by following an internal process whereby E and A disintegrate separately into a finer phases. In this case E (the solid) might become e (an earthy phase) and A (the airy component) becomes a (an aerial phase). This process might be represented as such,

EA -> ea + ea + ... + ea (an indeterminate number of finer grains each retaining its original essence).

(7) Whatever the actual process of dissolution, Marcus presumes that in time either E and A, or ea (the products of decay for the two paths), would eventually be consumed by fire, resulting in new substances consisting in this case of interactions involving water W and/or fire F producing a variety of new associations such as, EW, EF, WE, WF, EAW, EAWF, etc.

(8) Bringing this argument to the level of the individual and our own physical bodies, Marcus notes that these dissolutions occur in our bodies continuously, and on a daily basis. We are indeed not the same as we were when we were conceived or born (or indeed "yesterday," or the "day before").

(9) Marcus is referring to what we understand now as biological metabolism - the process that brings together the food we eat and the air we breathe into the various constituent cells of the body EA (in various combinations) through interaction with energy (fire).

(10) Accretion is the end result of a metabolic process such as the fabrication of a human cell.

(11) In spite of the physical changes that occur as we grow and age, we are in fact still, in a real sense, what we were at birth because the active component of life, our psyche or soul - a material substance - never changes. This implies that those physical changes that we do experience throughout our growth, maturation, and development would not, of necessity, be evil.

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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