Monday, October 19, 2009
Be Prepared - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.15
Meditation VIII.15 - Be Prepared - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Remember that as it is a shame to be surprised if the fig-tree produces figs, so it is to be surprised if the world produces such and such things of which it is productive; and for the physician and the helmsman it is a shame to be surprised, if a man has a fever, or if the wind is unfavorable.1
(1) This simple meditation captures much of the clarity and realism of Stoicism. It also underscores the importance of being aware of where we are and the world around us. You will be surprised when the tree produces figs if you do not know it is indeed a fig tree. An alternate presentation of this notion is that We Reap What We Sow from Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (6:7-9):
"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."
The Stoic presentation of the idea is quite similar since Paul is certainly drawing from the Stoic philosophical tradition extant in his day. Stoics however differentiate between 'living according to nature' and 'living in opposition to nature.' Those who Paul calls "sinful" are, in Stoic terms, following the dictates of their animal nature rather than following reason. While Paul offers us a carrot ("eternal reward") and stick ("destruction") in delivering his dire warnings, the Stoic approach is less reproachful. Stoics feel compassion for those who miss the point of existence because "sin" in Stoic terms is less willful than the Christian presentation.
Sin for the Stoic is really ignorance. For example if we are unaware that trees can produce useful fruits, or that fevers signify illnesses or that the direction of the winds can signify the onset of foul weather, then we will be ill prepared to deal with the slings and arrows of existence. Knowing these things - but more importantly the moral directives these natural laws signify for us - allow us to be prepared for whatever comes our way. When we follow reason we will be in a position to respond to misfortune in appropriate ways and in so doing we will be rewarded in the moment. This is the source of Stoic serenity. The destruction of those who live in opposition to nature is the desperation, hopelessness and horror of being completely unaware of anything around us.
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.