Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Diamonds and Rust - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. IX.15
Meditation IX.15 - Diamonds and Rust - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Things stand outside of us, themselves by themselves, knowing nothing of themselves, nor expressing any judgment.1 What is it, then, which does judge about them? The ruling faculty.2
(1) Stoicism is an animistic philosophy. Every entity in nature is a composite of body and soul, and it is the soul that actuates all motions of the body. Unlike animistic religious traditions the Stoic soul is not a spiritual force above nature, but a distinct physical property of nature. In the Stoic scheme an inanimate object, like a diamond, is not strictly speaking inanimate. A diamond is able to transmit and diffract light; it can resist decay more so than any other material; and if dropped, it will fall. Modern science will account for each of these properties invoking explanations that draw on the electromagnetic, nuclear, and gravitational forces and fields that surround the diamond at the microscopic and macroscopic levels. The covalent unit cell structure in diamond accounts for its strength. The crystal arrangements of the carbon atoms in diamond account for its unique optical and electromagnetic properties. The gravitational field surrounding the diamond accounts for its gravitational interactions. The Stoics were not aware of these precise physical details, but did maintain that the properties of "things [that] stand outside of us"- such as a diamond - were caused by an active principle. The active principle was called pneuma, a physical rather than spiritual substance in nature, and associated with soul. In this sense then a diamond has a soul. Without soul the diamond would be entirely inert, invisible, without mass, and unable to interact in any way with anything else. While the Stoics maintain that the elements of nature are animate, the soul of a diamond is not rational. It is in a sense in a state of unconscious bliss, incapable of judgment and unaware of its existence. This is an important point. In many polytheistic traditions inanimate forces and elements in nature were accorded judging powers and even deified. Nature and her components (sun, sea, wind, animals) were alive and powerful, and needed to be placated, worshiped and appeased with sacrifices. So, in the tradition of Greco-Roman polytheism this statement can be regarded as a radical and rational break with the past. Nature is indeed magnificent and powerful and beautiful. But the elements of nature are not rational. The elements and forces of nature are unaware of themselves and certainly cannot make judgments of themselves or of human beings. There is no room in Stoicism for superstition.
(2) Human beings also have souls. But unlike the soul of a diamond, the human soul is rational. It, like the soul of the diamond, comes from the active aspect of nature, the physical laws that govern the activity of all physical elements. But, unlike the soul of the diamond, the human soul has this additional property: it can reject nature. It can act in ways that are contrary to the will of nature. This freedom to judge is unique to all sentient life (Stoics did not presume that human beings were the only form of sentient life in the universe). It accounts for the consciousness that only sentient beings can sense. The bliss that humans can access is not the unconscious bliss of a rock or a diamond, it is the sublime conscious bliss that Stoics call eudomia or happiness. Happiness is not automatic. Because our ruling faculty allows judgment, we can reject nature, but with this we will also reject happiness. But, in the lonely spirit of Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez, in doing this we can know then only the rust of despair that comes from our alienation from love, and from nature. Happiness is accorded to those who act in accord with the Law. What comes naturally and automatically to a diamond, must be freely chosen by a human being.
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.