Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Stoic Carrot has no Stick - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.26

Meditation VIII.26 - The Stoic Carrot has no Stick - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

It is satisfaction to a human to do the proper works of a human.1 Now it is a proper work of a human to be benevolent to others, to despise the movements of the senses, to form a just judgment of plausible appearances, and to take a survey of the nature of the universe and of the things which happen in it.2,3


(1) What is proper for a human being is to follow the directives of the superior faculty - that is reason. Human beings live according to nature when they follow reason. While it is possible to willfully live in opposition to nature (we have free will), no Stoic ever presumes that those who live in opposition to nature do so willfully. The preferred Stoic stance is that those who live in opposition to nature do so from ignorance. The willful rejection of reason is morally equivalent to the Christian concept of the unforgivable sin - the willing rejection of God's love. The difference in Stoicism is that a rejection of reason is equivalent to the rejection of the self, because we are defined in Stoicism by the reason or Logos in us (see also Meditation IX.38).

(2) Our first duty is to be benevolent to others. This is not an injunction from scripture (there is no Stoic scripture) or from God (there is no Stoic God) or from human authority (there are no human authorities). This is the will of nature, and it follows from "a survey of the nature of the universe and of the things which happen in it." Drawing or inferring moral conclusions from physical laws requires close attention to the nature of things. But this is what Stoicism does. The study of physics (broadly understood as the Law of nature), or nature generally, demonstrates that sentient life is communal. Malevolence toward others is non-rational, or in opposition to the Law of nature.

Marcus does not say we should despise the senses, only the "movements" of the senses. The senses are geared to the body and they ought only inform the body to respond in appropriate ways (to eat, to sleep, to exercise, or to seek emotional release). But if the actions of the body (in response to a desire for pleasure or the avoidance of pain) lead the mind to act (or move) in opposition to our fundamentally benevolent nature we ought to despise these movements. Nothing we do in our lives should ever restrict our fundamental duty toward others. This seems an impossible task - just as the eight beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10 - see note 3 below) from Christ's Sermon on the Mount (which were certainly inspired by Stoicism) seem impossible to a Christian. But as Christianity offers eternal salvation as the carrot and promise for its life long program, Stoicism maintains that in despising the movements of the senses we will experience peace and serenity - not as a heavenly reward, but in the here and now. This Stoic carrot - immediate "satisfaction" - has a more appealing flavor and is delivered without the stick.

(3) The eight beatitudes below conform to Stoic principles (substitute Logos for God). They articulate (in part) what Stoic benevolence requires. These ideas were sourced in Stoic, Platonic and neoplatonic writings, including those of Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) and especially Cicero's (106 BCE - 43 BCE) De Officiis. There would have been no Christian theology or philosophy were it not for these contributions of Greco-Roman wisdom.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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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