Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Art of Contradiction - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.14
Meditation VIII.14 - The Art of Contradiction - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Whoever you meet with, immediately say to yourself: What opinions has this one about good and bad?1 For if with respect to pleasure and pain and the causes of each, and with respect to fame and ignominy, death and life, this person has such and such opinions, it will seem nothing wonderful or strange to me, if he or she does such and such things; and I shall bear in mind that this one is compelled to do so.2
(1) The Stoic personality will strike many as unusual. The Stoic is indifferent toward those things that are generally regarded as good or bad. This would be a long list: the weather, our financial circumstances, our health, the progress of wars, our reputations, the death of a neighbor or family member. In fact most of the topics that people engage in - would be matters of interest, but would never be categorized with good or bad value judgments in any conventional sense. The single criterion for being good or bad will always be whether something is according to, or contrary to nature. This should not imply that the Stoic is cold and unfeeling. A Stoic will naturally express sympathy toward someone's personal or public misfortune, and will readily offer assistance, because misfortunes do present challenges. But the tone of the Stoic's response will always be positive. There is a silver lining in all forms of misfortune because every "bad" experience presents us with a unique opportunity to turn our lives around, by redirecting our self pity toward what really matters in life. And what really matters in life is that we live within the rubric of nature, by transforming momentary self pity into compassion toward the community at large.
(2) The meditation might seem to express a formula for elitism and the avoidance of those whose attitudes are characteristically non-Stoic. But the character judgments a Stoic forms toward others are not designed as a form of snobbery. No Stoic will ever presume that he is better than anyone else. In fact the Stoic stance toward non-Stoic attitudes is one of deep compassion. A Stoic will reflect always that, "there but for reason go I." When a Stoic notices the sorts of attitudes summarized in this meditation in others, he or she will be prepared to counter those attitudes with contradictions that will probably strike others as strange and unexpected, but never offensive. The Stoic's objective would never be to demean or put down those who hold unhealthy attitudes. The objective will be to offer the hearer another way of seeing her situation - a perspective that is designed to turn the hearer toward living rightly. The art of contradiction requires careful thought.
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.