Monday, June 15, 2009

Clever and Cheeky! - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. IX.28a

Meditation IX.28a - Clever and Cheeky - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

The periodic movements of the universe are the same, up and down from age to age.1 And either the universal intelligence puts itself in motion for every separate effect, and if this is so, be you content with that which is the result of its activity;2 or it puts itself in motion once, and everything else comes by way of sequence in a manner;3 or indivisible elements are the origin of all things.4 - In a word, if there is a god, all is well;5 and if chance rules, do not you also be governed by it.6


(1) Marcus is referring to the astronomical precession of the equinoxes, a 26,000 year cycle (called a Platonic year) traced by the westward motion of the equinoxes along the ecliptic, and opposite to the sun's motion on the ecliptic. Knowledge of this cycle was based on data gathered by Mesopotamian and Babylonian observers extending back thousands of years. The Greek astronomer Hipparcus (ca. 190 BCE – ca. 120 BCE) is usually credited with discovering this cycle.

(2) This is a remarkable distinction invoked still by deists. The deity acts either individually throughout the cosmos regulating every nuance of motion, or, as offered next, the deity creates a complex law, or system of laws that operate sequentially and thereby require no intervention by the creator.

(3) Clearly the Stoics were divided on this question so Marcus leaves it open.

(4) This comment refers to an unresolved physical question on whether matter was infinitely divisible or atomic in nature. The "indivisible elements" are atoms. In the ancient world atoms were thought of as autonomous and disconnected from the whole. The modern atomic theories also involve discrete particles, but all particles have a long range influence on every other particle in the system (see also Meditation IX.39).

(5) The Stoics allied themselves with the idea of universal intelligence, a non-transcendent physical "god" with rationality, alternately (and preferably) called Logos. The alternate atomic hypotheses seemed to rule out universal coordination. The atomic theory suggested that chance ruled all. A modern Stoic - aware as we are now that particles act at a distance - would have less of a problem with atomism as such. Of course the realities of quantum mechanics have reintroduced chance and uncertainty back into the system of the world in ways unforeseen by the ancients. This does not invalidate Stoicism - a philosophy that has always been open to physical reality. In Stoicism morality is modeled on law. The fact that modern physics has brought a multiplicity of novel possibilities to physical behaviors only enriches the interpretive possibilities of the New Stoicism. In any case, modern physics does have predictive power. Large systems do evolve in statistically knowable ways. There is always an element of chance involved in modern physics, but it is not the completely random and unpredictable sort of chance Marcus refers to in this meditation.

(6) Marcus is really dismissing chance here: "if chance rules, do not you also be governed by it." The only rational explanation we can offer for this statement is that Marcus believes that chance could not rule because we are in fact governed by reason - an obviously "sequential" intellectual process - and an emanation of Logos, which is divine. In other words the fact that we use reason, which is - according to Stoicism - a physical operation of nature, demonstrates the fact of universal intelligence. In a universe governed by chance reason would be impossible because no predictable sequences could ever occur. Clever and cheeky!

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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