Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Unforgivable Sin - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. IX.38

Meditation IX.38 - The Unforgivable Sin - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

If you have done wrong, the harm is your own. But perhaps you have not done wrong.1


(1) Human beings are incapable of causing harm to others or perhaps even to themselves. This surprising claim rests on the Stoic definition of harm. What most of us describe as harmful is - in Stoicism - not truly harmful at all. For example, a physical hurt or injury or a death - whatever the cause - is never viewed as harmful, because the human body is regarded as the passive envelope of what is human - the soul. This does not mean that we ought to disregard the body or its welfare. We have a responsibility to treat our bodies, and the bodies of others with respect. Our bodies need to be nourished and maintained and kept in good health. But the Stoic's attitude toward the body (the shelter for the soul) ought to be no different than our attitude toward our home (the shelter of the body). In other words it ought to be secured against assault, protected from the elements, maintained in good repair, insured against loss, and decorated in a pleasing and attractive manner. The loss or injury of the body or a home is never desired. It can be extremely inconvenient, disruptive and unpleasant. But the use of the language of harm around things of the body is as inappropriate as its use around a physical object. A home may be damaged or destroyed by fire, but never harmed because damage can normally be repaired and the home can generally be replaced. Even if the damage or loss is not repairable, the worst that can happen is that we will need to deal with inconvenience. So too with the body. The loss of an arm, or our sight or our legs is - at worst - a terrible inconvenience. The same can be said of the soul. the human soul can not be harmed because the soul is invincible because the soul is an emanation of divine reason, and governed by perfect and immutable law.

While the body may not be governed by the soul - this is our personal choice - the soul is still nonetheless immune from harm. But to the Stoic, anyone who does allow the body to rule, does so, normally, out of ignorance. He or she is simply unaware of the rules of the game and has chosen to do what appears to be right - rather than what is right. Doing what is right in any situation requires that we live according to nature. If we do not follow nature we become alienated from our soul. But following nature requires an awareness of what nature requires of us. This means we must study nature in order to apprehend the rules of engagement in life. If we do not study nature we will ever remain ignorant of those requirements. In these cases the default position is to follow the irrational signals of the body. The one caveat in all of this - and a rare one perhaps - is the willful choice of the irrational over the rational. We are free to do this because we are free. But this is the moral equivalent of what Christians call the unforgivable sin, or the willful rejection of the Spirit of God. For the Stoic this would mean that we have witnessed and understood the beauty and goodness inherent in nature, but reject it all the same. This - to the Stoic - is wrong.

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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