Friday, October 16, 2009
Act with Purpose - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.17
Meditation VIII.17 - Act with Purpose - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
If a thing is in your own power, why do you do it?1 But if it is in the power of another, who do you blame?2 The atoms (chance) or the gods?3 Both are foolish.4 You must blame nobody.5 For if you can, correct that which is the cause; but if you can not do this, correct at least the thing itself; but if you can not do even this, of what use is it to you to find fault?6 For nothing should be done without a purpose.7,8
(1) The only area where any human being has unrestricted power is in the exercise of the will. Our opinions or beliefs are ours alone. These are never dependent upon the assistance of others. Of course our opinions or beliefs may be objectively wrong in which case thay are rooted in ignorance or faulty reasoning - as may be the case for example where we adopt the belief or opinion of another without checking the facts. Since belief is our only sovereign power, any actions we take ought to be based upon a belief based on sound reasoning. Since reasoning in Stoic terms comes from nature, our actions will also be done according to nature. The answer to the "why do you do it" question is that we ought to do what we do because it is according to nature.
(2) Stoics never blame anyone because all actions - even those actions that are subjectively contrary to nature - are sanctioned by nature. Human beings are free to act in any ways they see fit. But those who act outside the universal law do so because they do not exercise their reason in enlightened ways. They act because they are ignorant of nature listening instead to the call of their animal nature which in rational beings is always subservient to the power of mind.
(3) The Stoics did not adhere to the presocratic atomic model. In that view matter was composed of distinct atoms which were autonomous and disconnected from the whole. Modern atomism differs in that the discrete atoms are connected through laws of attraction and repulsion. Marcus refers to the gods in this reference as conveyors of fate. Thus the choice regarding blame is between chance or fate.
(4) If the actions of others are either completely random or completely predetermined then no active intercession can alter the course of events. Chance and fate seem to act foolishly - as if devoid of reason - which is how fools behave.
(5) Like blaming the leg of a table for stubbing your toe, it is irrational to blame any agency that is devoid or reason.
(6) As in the previous example your stubbed toe may be a consequence of faulty or unsafe table design. Here the designer has erred because of laziness (thoughtlessness) or ignorance. You could perhaps bring attention to this and correct the design (reeducate the designer). Alternately the table may be placed in an unsafe location, then you can relocate the table. If neither is possible it is irrational to level blame because both the original design and the placement of the table are consequences of chance or fate.
(7) This is the force of the meditation: all actions must be purposeful. This meditation has broad scope. It can be brought to bear in countless ways from driving too fast, to our consumer choices, or to the many small things we say and do on a daily basis. Thoughtless actions are negligent and irresponsible because they can lead to unfortunate consequences within the broader community, and our prime responsibility is always toward the broader community. We do have the power to act diligently and rationally and virtuously in all that we do. When we do we will be satisfied and happy even in situations where we experience misfortune or when things appear not to go in ways we hoped. Every misfortune we experience presents us with a unique opportunity for virtue.
(8) The image above is from the blog atomicpoet. The entry Social Media is Not a Synonym for Chat! fleshes out out important distinctions between chatting and blogging. As discussed in that entry there is something more going on than simply a social interaction. The distinction between these social media and mass media is also explored and examined under the rubric of Marshall McLuhan's (1911-1980) iconic and prescient work Understanding Media.
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.