Tuesday, October 27, 2009
The Human Project - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.07
Meditation VIII.07 - The Human Project - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Every nature is contented with itself when it goes on its way well;1 and a rational nature goes on its way well, when in its thoughts it assents to nothing false or uncertain,2 and when it directs its movements to social acts only,3 and when it confines its desires and aversions to the things which are in its power,4 and when it is satisfied with everything that is assigned to it by the common nature.5 For of this common nature every particular nature is a part,6 as the nature of the leaf is a part of the nature of the plant;7 except that in the plant the nature of the leaf is part of a nature which has not perception or reason, and is subject to be impeded;8 but the nature of a human being is part of a nature which is not subject to impediments, and is intelligent and just, since it gives to everything in equal portions and according to its worth, times, substance, cause (form), activity, and incident.9 But examine, not to discover that any one thing compared with any other single thing is equal in all respects, but by taking all the parts together of one thing and comparing them with all the parts together of another.10
(1) In the context of this meditation the term "nature" is used to refer to a particular species, be it animate or inanimate matter. These would include animals, insects, plants, and sentient beings.
(2) Because nature is true, assenting to anything false or uncertain will be in opposition to nature. The key to living well and contentedly is in assenting to the will of nature. Only rational beings have have free will and the power to deny nature. Human beings can lie, bear false witness, or assert as true things which are not so beyond a reasonable doubt.
(3) The purpose of any aggregate collection or community of like natures - bees, stars, trees or human beings - is the advancement or common wealth of that nature. The individual natures within any aggregate must act in support of the collective to insure the success of the social unit. A bee works for the success of the swarm; a star responds to the forces of nature to ensure the evolution of a galaxy; a tree reacts to the ecological pressures within its environment to maximize its success; a human being therefore ought to act in accord with the natural laws of its community, and never in response to the demands of her particular nature.
(4) A human being may desire immortality or be averse to misfortune, but nature has other plans for us. We will die, and we will experience pain. These things are not within our power, and to conduct our lives in denial of these inevitabilities is to oppose what must be, and is a recipe for eventual despair. We do have the power to desire what must be, and to exercise our power of reason to cooperate fully with the plan of nature, and to act in all ways and at all times with the rightly determined will of the community. The will of the community might not always be rightly determined, as might be the case under the irrational tyranny of a despot. Acting rightly or virtuously within a human community requires political intelligence and wisdom - no mean task for a citizen. The task of being a good human being is indeed a difficult one.
(5) We must always be satisfied with what nature has assigned to us. Any discontent with our human status reflects discontent with the superior intelligence of Logos, the divine intelligence from which our particular intelligence is derived. Our role is to fully understand what our talents are, and where we stand in relation to the community, and to carry out our function to the best of our ability. In Stoicism all human beings are considered equal. The king is no more important or crucial than the pauper. Each of us is capable and essential in realizing the purpose of the community.
(6) This reinforces the equality of roles noted in (5). Human beings are linked through Logos. We are all divine in this sense because Logos is in each of us and Logos is divine and invincible. Thus within the parameters of our human roles, we too are invincible. That which is invincible is clearly powerful.
(7) Every leaf of a plant plays an important role.
(8) No leaf has the power to strike out on its own by ignoring the will of the plant, or by imagining that it is more important than the plant. Human beings may try to act like this with respect to the human community - and we certainly do often try to act exclusively in our own interests. But, like a leaf detached from the plant, self-directed human activity will eventually lead to dissolution and death.
(9) The nature which is not subject to impediments is Logos - the divine essence that is also at the root of our humanity. What we are, who we are, where we are placed in community, and the roles we have been assigned are determined by this divine essence - an essence that is supremely intelligent, just and wise.
(10) Our function within community is to discover where it is we are, what is our relationship to others, and what purpose we have with respect to the larger community. The formula for success requires we undertake a thorough and critical examination of our place in nature using the tools of reason with which we are endowed. The wonderful thing about being human in Stoic terms is that we are mandated to undertake a lifelong voyage of self discovery by following what is essentially a scientific exercise involving the cooperation of all members of the community.
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.