Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Folly of Power - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.03

Meditation VIII.03 - The Folly of Power - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Alexander1 and Gaius2 and Pompeius,3 what are they in comparison with Diogenes4 and Heraclitus5 and Socrates?6 For they were acquainted with things, and their causes (forms), and their matter, and the ruling principles of these men were the same.7 But as to the others, how many things had they to care for, and to how many things were they slaves?8


(1) Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BCE – 44 BCE), was a Roman military and political leader.

(2) Alexander III of Macedon, popularly known as Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE).

(3) Pompeius (ca. 75 BCE - 45 BCE), also known as Pompey the Younger, was a Roman politician and general from the late Roman Republic.

(4) Diogenes of Babylon (Diogenes the Stoic) (c. 230 -c. 150 BCE), Stoic philosopher from Seleucia.

(5) Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher.

(6) Socrates (470-399 BCE) was a Greek (Athenian) philosopher and one of the most important icons of the Western philosophical tradition.

(7) Marcus notes that the three philosophers were engaged in questioning the meaning of existence. They may differ in the particulars of what they believed to be true, but it was the pursuit of truth they all sought. In other words they were ruled by the same impulse.

(8) The implication here is that the three political figures noted sought not meaning from life, but power, and for Marcus the pursuit of power is no different than any other addiction and dependent always on the support or subjugation of others (see Meditation VIII.04). Such pursuits are in Stoic terms a form of enslavement and an abandonment of reason. The complexities of achieving power and maintaining it and ensuring one's physical safety suggest that those who live in this way are always burdened by many cares.

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 The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book.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.


lauren said...

Interesting meditation, thank you. Perhaps the lust for power is a kind of immaturity, a reflection of a lack of inner fulfillment. I am so often struck by the pathos of our highly competetive society, especially among the young. I remember seeing a television show of absolutely amazing young ice dancers who were reduced to tears and humiliation because they were not "number one", instead of the appreciation they should have felt for their extraordinary artistic achievements.

Russell McNeil said...

You are right. Power, fame, reputation, and greed are all attempts to fill a void. The Stoic sees these as false values (false opinions) because they focus on service of the self over service of the community. These sorts of goals never seem to satisfy us in the long term.

ciceronianus said...

It seems fame was a consuming obsession for the ancient Greeks and Romans. One thinks of Caesar visiting Alexander's tomb, and expressing sorrow over the fact that Alexander had achieved so much more than Caesar and at a younger age. Perhaps fame was, for them, the only true way to obtain anything approaching immortality. Especially for the Romans, a person's worth was determined by the extent of their power or imperium Marcus is remarkable in that he held ultimate power, but was sensible of the extent to which he was limited and burdened by that power.