Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Vanquishing Ignorance - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.63
Meditation VII.63 - Vanquishing Ignorance - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Every soul, the philosopher says,(1) is involuntarily deprived of truth;(2) consequently in the same way it is deprived of justice and temperance and benevolence and everything of the kind.(3) It is most necessary to bear this constantly in mind, for thus you will be more gentle towards all.(4)
(1) The philosopher is Aristotle who was held is such high regard in the ancient world that he alone was referred to as "the philosopher." It is not clear which of his writings Marcus refers to here.
(2) We are born in a state of ignorance of nature's law and subject to the whims, attractions, and sensations of the body. The "truth" in Stoic terms is the law of nature, which we can come to know, but only through a willed and arduous application of reason. Aristotle, a student of Plato, studied at Plato's Academy in Athens for nineteen years and founded his own school, the Lyceum. These institutions were later used as models in the founding of the modern university - their ultimate goal of course being the pursuit of truth. The acquisition of truth through reason requires careful work, subjective analysis, and a methodology based on logic. Stoicism as a philosophy was grounded on just such an approach.
(3) Stoicism differs from other philosophies because it rests firmly in natural philosophy, or what we have come today to call physics. The ultimate goal of Stoic physics was not utilitarian, or, as modern scientific purists might say: the pursuit of truth, for the sake of truth. Stoics believe that the laws of nature, which are all ultimately grounded in physics, are our templates for moral action. Stoics maintain that "justice and temperance and benevolence" and the other virtues, are the basis for human happiness. But what are these things? For the Stoic the answer lies in nature. Studying nature carefully, creatively, and metaphorically enables us to apply its laws to human behavior. We can come to know what is right and just only through a careful and methodical and ongoing study of the universe - not just its physics, but in all of its manifestations: natural, social, historical, political, psychological, etc. Thus the project of Stoicism, like the project of science generally, is a never ending, but ever unfolding practice involving all of the techniques used in both the modern and ancient world to uncover the mystery of the cosmos.
(4) The meditation is extremely gentle in its tone. We need to learn to be compassionate toward those who behave badly in the things that they do, for ignorance is the natural state of human beings. Those who live in ignorance are naturally self-serving, and will remain so unless and until they discover their higher calling - the pursuit of truth through reason. Thus it is the duty of the Stoic to bring this awareness to those who live in ignorance - not out of arrogance, but in order that those who do live in darkness may come to know how to live in light and in peace.
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.