Monday, December 14, 2009

Human Responsibility - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.55a

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Meditation VII.55a - Human Responsibility - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

Do not look around you to discover the ruling principles of others,(1) but look straight to this, to what nature leads you, both the universal nature through the things which happen to you,(2) and your own nature through the acts which must be done by you.(3) But every being ought to do that which is according to its constitution;(4) and all other things have been constituted for the sake of rational beings,(5) just as among irrational things the inferior for the sake of the superior,(6) but the rational for the sake of one another.(7)


(1) You are responsible for everything you do. In morality you should never be guided by the principles of your friends or parents or teachers or church or social organization or neighbors or country. Before you take any action, consult your own principles first. A Stoic never acts reflexively. You must decide what is right on your own terms and you must decide the rightness of any action independently. Never follow the directive of a "leader" in any guise before confirming that the directive aligns with your principles. This is a sombre duty. The relationships and contracts we enter into are always tentative in Stoicism: soldiers in battle, employees in the workplace, members of unions, elected representatives of political parties, or the citizens of a nation are bound to those contracts with their leaders only insofar as the duties expected from them conform to their ruling principles. If a soldier reasons that an order is wrong, she must disobey. If an employee reasons that his company's actions are improper, he must refuse to do that work. If a union member determines that a job action demanded of her is immoral, she must not do it. If an elected representative understands that his party's position on an issue is wrong, he has no choice but to oppose it. If you as a citizen know that a law that you are bound to obey is against nature, you must disobey.

(2) The "universal nature" is Logos - sometimes also called the universal intelligence. In this modern era we might refer simply to this as the Law of Nature. These are not moral prescriptions as such; they are the physical laws of nature writ large. Even now we do not fully appreciate the extent of this Law (or laws), but the laws of physics and thermodynamics which govern the behavior of matter on the microscopic and macroscopic scale certainly play a role in our understanding of the Law. What happens to us in life is in a large sense unavoidable. We are born. We will grow old. And we will die. The universal nature determines this. Nature leads us all in this journey. And in a large measure what we become and how we interact in the world is also predetermined by our physical talents and proclivities - these in the main are predetermined by our genetic make-up. We are free to harness these talents in any way we see fit and also free to ignore them, but the potentialities we inherit are given to us by nature.

(3) Our "own nature" is principally social. Marcus reminds us of this in various ways throughout his meditations, particularly in Meditation V.30 (in the book). To be social in this Stoic context means that our primary duty is always other-serving - as opposed to self-serving. This has broad implications on the moral plane. For example we are not free to ignore our political responsibilities (and these play out in a myriad of ways). We are political animals. Politics can be seen as a bad word to many - most likely because many of us may abuse our political responsibilities. It does not need to be so. In the Stoic world our political and personal responsibilities converge - the personal is political.

(4) Our constitution is social and we are equipped to interact within the social or political community according to the skills and abilities we have.

(5) This should not be read in the biblical sense. That is we ought not feel that because we are human we have a right to have dominion over the non-rational physical world. What is does mean is that the rational is superior to the non-rational - just as the mind is superior to the body. In a human being, the body exists for the mind. On the large scale the matter of the universe exists for the Law (intelligence) which it governs.

(6) Inferiority should not imply a value judgment. Everything in the universe is necessary. But there is order in the placement of things in the universe. The foundation of a building is inferior (lower) than its superior (upper) floors. But the foundation must be treated with great care and respect although it certainly exists for - and is absolutely necessary for the superior.

(7) This ordering of superior and inferior does not exist within the rational realm. No human being is inferior (or superior) to any other. We exist for each other. We may carry duties and responsibilities which are regarded as more important. The king is generally regarded as superior to the average citizen. But this is not so in Stoicism. Each of us is endowed with reason, and our reason comes from the universal. Because reason - as reason - is infallible and invincible (although we may not use our reason perfectly), no single human being can be seen as better, superior, or more deserving than any other. We are all divine in this Stoic sense.

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.

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