Monday, January 4, 2010
Nothing New Under the Sun - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.49
Meditation VII.49 - Nothing New Under the Sun - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. You may foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what more will you see?(1)
(1) This is not a peculiarly Stoic stance. Before the scientific revolution history was viewed as a cyclical process. What was, will be again. For the ancients in particular - and especially for the Stoics - historical events and "political supremacies" mirrored the cycles of nature. Those cycles are apparent in the inexorable diurnal risings of the sun, the sequence of the seasons, and in the the orbits of the stars and planets. So too was it with human life and in the rest of nature. We are born; we mature; and we die. What we witness in "forty years" is sufficient for any human being. Nothing is new or will be substantially new in our experience if we were to live for "ten thousand years."
Modern experience has shifted this perspective, but it is doubtful that Marcus would change his stance if he were alive today. The ingrained belief that history is a progressive and "forward" moving train, reflects the belief that Darwinian evolution and natural selection has relevance in the social and political sphere. That may well be so, but if it is so, it would be a serious misreading of Darwin to expect that political evolution is somehow progressive. Natural selection is not and never was a progressive theory. New species emerge in the environment in response to changing environments. We are not getting "better and better every day and in every way" because of evolution, we are simply changing every day in response to changing environments. If sea levels rise in the epochs ahead, there is no evolutionary reason that would preclude mammals now adapted to land to re-adapt to a more extensive marine environment. Human life - if it is able to survive the pressures of massive climate change - might well discover that the trait we call "reason" will afford us less protection in overall survival terms than the ability to adapt to aquatic life!
I suspect also that Marcus would be somewhat appalled by the seduction of modern man by technology. Technologies - he would likely note - have done nothing to make us more virtuous, more compassionate, more forgiving, more courageous, more beneficent. If anything human technology has further alienated humanity by carving disparate schisms between haves and have-nots, North and South, East and West, rich and poor, Islam and Christian, etc. Technologies and the "wonders" of the scientific revolution have been designed to service the body - not the soul. We crave immortality now more than ever before. But this is a fool's game.
The project of living has not changed since the second century. We were designed by nature to serve each other. That is the only service that will bring happiness. History will transform humanity's exterior over the next ten thousand years, but the fundamental truths will ever be the same.
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.