Thursday, July 30, 2009
Dying Contently - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.47
Meditation VIII.47 - Dying Contently - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it.1 And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.2 But if anything in your own disposition gives you pain, who hinders you from correcting your opinion?3 And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing which seems to you to be right, why do you not rather act than complain?4 - But some insuperable obstacle is in the way? - Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you.5 - But it is not worth while to live if this cannot be done. - Take your departure then from life contently, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles.6
(1) Marcus mirrors the frustrations we so often feel around the many external forces in our lives over which we have little or no control. These forces - be they economic, bureaucratic, systemic or natural - are generally beyond the reach of anyone. Still, we often feel personally oppressed or injured by them - a state of affairs that can color our outlook on life. Our emotional reactions to these forces range from irritation to anger. But, such responses are really a useless expenditure of emotional energy which leave us depleted and unable to react to those forces that we can change.
(2) While Marcus seems to state the obvious here - that it is our judgment or opinion about injustice that causes us more harm than the injustice itself - few people realize this. Taking a "whatever will be will be" attitude requires little more than a mental shift - a power each of us has. What we gain in return is peace of mind, and of course the mental reserve to act on those things that we need to act on.
(3) The answer is clear. No one can ever hinder you from shifting your opinion. Opinion is a sovereign power and the source of enormous empowerment in our lives.
(4) Doing the right thing is another area where human beings have sovereign authority. If the way is clear for us to act rightly but we do not act, then we have only ourselves to blame. The pain and guilt we feel can be alleviated in any situation where opportunity for virtue presents itself. Act rightly in those situations and we will never feel the need to complain.
(5) If the way is not clear to acting rightly because there are unmovable impediments in the way - so too, we ought never feel upset about those situations. Those impediments are there for a reason, and the only healthy stance is to accept what is and move toward those things that are in our power.
(6) This advice seems strange, but is sage. Marcus refers here to obstacles that are not only not movable but unstoppable. These obstacles not only prevent us from doing what is right, they threaten our very existence. Marcus may be alluding here to battlefield situations with overwhelming enemy forces bearing down upon a weakened and spent defense. It could equally apply to another sort of battle - such as a death from terminal cancer. Even in these however, the Stoic response is to accept these situations with courage and equanimity. We can do only what we can do, and in the grand scheme of things these forces have a role to play in the realization of nature's plan. If we must die in this situation - we ought to die content, and in the full knowledge that we did all that we could do to live as nature intended.
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.