Monday, July 27, 2009

The Stoic Calculus - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.49

Meditation VIII.49 - The Stoic Calculus - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Say nothing more to yourself than what the first appearances report. Suppose that it has been reported to you that a certain person speaks ill of you. This has been reported; but that you have been injured, that has not been reported. I see that my child is sick. I do see; but that he is in danger, I do not see.1 Thus then always abide by the first appearances, and add nothing yourself from within, and then nothing happens to you.2 Or rather add something, like a person who knows everything that happens in the world.3


(1) The imagination plays a crucial role in our psychological health. We imagine various possible futures as we negotiate our paths through life, and make decisions based on an internal risk calculus that determines the likelihood of the various possible "what if" outcomes. But for many of us these "what if" scenarios are regulated by the so-called pleasure versus pain principle. This is what the human animal does to maximize its chances of survival. Marcus does not expect us to shut this faculty down entirely. We need this to survive, and to ensure the survival of those around us, including our children. But what differentiates the Stoic from the animal is her capacity to shift this calculus from the metric of pleasure versus pain to the metric of virtue versus vice. It is virtue that determines real happiness - not pleasure, and it is vice that brings despair - not pain. This sort of psychological shift is not unnatural, it is in fact profoundly human. If someone speaks ill of us, we are not harmed. Our reputation can never disable our capacity to act rightly. If our child is ill, the possibility that the child is in danger can never disable our capacity to be virtuous. However, when we become overly concerned about how we are viewed by others, or obsessively fixated on the welfare of those we love, we will certainly be blinded to the needs of the world.

(2) When we go past first appearances and use the calculus of the pleasure-pain principle, we effectively remove ourselves from the human community. This "me first" approach makes it unlikely that we can ever do what is necessary for the welfare of the wider community, but this is always our first duty in life. In any event, worrying about our reputation, or the health of a child is senseless. These are false worries because neither our reputation nor the health of another can ever impede our capacity for doing the right thing in any situation.

(3) Marcus says that we may "add something." But the something that we can add is this: all things that happen to us and to those around are happen for a reason. Furthermore, nothing that happens to us, or can happen to those around us, can ever remove from us our capacity for acting well in any circumstance, and nothing that happens to us can remove our fundamental duty and inalienable human right - to live according to nature.

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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