Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Übermensch - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.55
Meditation VIII.55 - Übermensch - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Generally, wickedness does no harm at all to the universe;1 and particularly, the wickedness of one person does no harm to another.2 It is only harmful to the one who has the power to be released from it, as soon as he or she shall choose.3,4
(1) Stoicism takes no prisoners on this most fundamental philosophical question, the so-called "problem of evil." There is no problem. Evil exists, yes. But evil exists only in the will of the actor, and evil is always freely chosen by the actor. But the response to evil that shocks most students of this philosophy is Stoicism's answer to the classic question, "why do bad things happen to good people?" The answer is uncompromising: bad things cannot happen to good people. Period. The basic premise of Stoicism is that our human nature (as opposed to our animal nature) is divine and invulnerable. It resides in our reason, and our reason is also divine - and also invulnerable. Evil cannot subvert what is divine. Furthermore there are no demons in Stoicism. There is no evil genius lurking at the center of hell plotting the overthrow of Logos. In fact, there is no hell - or heaven either, but this is discussed in some of the other meditations (see meditation VI.40 in the book). Yes, of course, things that we in modern culture call "bad" can happen to the body. I can fall off a cliff, or be gunned down by a crazed stranger. But in Stoicism these things are misfortunes, and matters of indifference in the grand scheme, because they never modify our basic serenity or the timeless state of sublime bliss or enlightenment that comes from living a life of virtue.
(2) This is profoundly important - perhaps more important than any of the claims of Stoics. If I truly believe that I can never be harmed, I am the Nietzschean Übermensch (Overman or Superman) of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, although not perhaps in the way Nietzsche imagined. What is truly important about this idea in Stoicism is its potential to bring about a truly revolutionary gestalt shift in human behavior. If I feel and know that what is truly human in me is immune from harm, there is nothing to keep me from doing the right thing in any situation. In Nietzsche's version of this idea the protagonist Zarathrustra maintains that "man is something which ought to be overcome." In Stoicism anyone can overcome his animal nature with a shift in attitude - away from the body and toward the immutable divine essence that is at the core of each of us.
(3) The choice is ours. We look into our selves to discover where our nature resides. In so doing we see the light of reason and understand from whence it comes. The inner journey requires disciplined and careful meditation - which, of course, is why I am writing this blog - to teach us how to begin this journey.
(4) The image above is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 License.
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.