Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Soul - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.45

Meditation VIII.45 - The Soul - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Take me and cast me where you will; for there I shall keep my divine part tranquil, that is, content, if it can feel and act conformably to its proper constitution.1 Is this change of place sufficient reason why my soul should be unhappy and worse than it was, depressed, expanded, shrinking, affrighted?2 And what will you find which is sufficient reason for this?3


(1) The divine part of a human being is the psyche or soul (see also Meditations XI.16, XII.14 and XII.15). But the Stoic soul is not the ethereal transcendent soul of the Christian. It is a tangible and measurable and natural dimension of human life. The human soul expresses itself in mental activity. Those activities can be measured using modern electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) and related tools. The predominent trait in the human psyche is the capacity of the soul for reason, and it is reason that differentiates sentient life from non-sentient life. Through reason the soul can contemplate itself, understand its essence, and realize that this contemplative or meditative power resides in natural law and is a magnificent expression of the electrochemical forces of nature harnessed in a unique way. This is what the Greeks intended with their injunction to "know thyself," and this is what the Stoics took this injunction to mean. When we apprehend the soul in these terms we grasp the meaning of Stoic invulnerability. The soul is not the nervous system or the individual neurons that characterize the brain. The soul is the expression of the activities carried out through those neurons and nervous system. We can damage a neuron, but we cannot damage the activity of the neuron because the mental activity is carried in the electrochemical expression of neural storage and activity. The forces and fields responsible for mental activity are immune from harm. We will die and those activities will cease. But the forces and fields that were active in life will live on in other ways and in other activities. This is a consequence of natural law.

(2) The answer is no. No change of place, no matter how confining or oppressive or physically challenging can change the operation of reason. We are always able to reason as long as the mind continues to live. In principle this idea applies even to the most extreme forms of hardship or torture. As long as the Stoic appreciates that physical sensations are matters of the body, he ought to be able to remain serene. Of course this requires extraordinary effort. But it is possible. This attitude is not the attitude of faith demanded of the Christian martyr who is able to endure hardship because of her faith in a heavenly reward. The Stoic "martyr" is simply exercising reason and able to separate the suffering of the body from the tranquillity of the mind. She will notice and feel pain, but because she understands that tranquillity resides in the soul and not the body, she is able to let the pains of the body assume their proper and lower place in her existence.

(3) The only reason that we will become depressed or fearful in an oppressive and fearful situation is if we focus exclusively on the fear of bodily harm. But to do so is be ignorant of our nature, and in a real sense to live in opposition to nature. Our humanity resides in our capacity to transcend the body, to reach out into the cosmos, to know that our essence is distilled from and part of a universal intelligence Logos with the capacity to comprehend the full meaning of existence.

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Seneca the Younger's letters to his Mom about his exilement should be recommended reading to go along with this meditation.