Thursday, January 7, 2010
Stoicism versus Existentialism: Anticipating (and Denying) Sartre - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.48
Meditation VII.48 - Stoicism versus Existentialism: Anticipating (and Denying) Sartre - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
This is a fine saying of Plato: That whoever is discoursing about humanity should look also at earthly things as if viewed from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labors, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.(1)
(1) This is essential Stoic method, and is fundamental to all forms of detached scientific objectivity. Marcus advises us to "think before we speak." Humanity is a complex political organism. If we must discuss human things we need to examine the human organism in all of its rainbowed diversities. The Law of Nature works in all spheres of existence and manifests - not only in the unfolding of the physical universe - but in the unfolding of the human project.
This close examination of human nature offers us an opportunity to discover the parallels between the behavior of the cosmos writ large, and the behavior of the human organism. For the Stoic everything in Nature is subject to the same natural Law. This approach is very different from the parochial approaches of the religious or secular dogmatist. Religious fundamentalist dogmas view the world through the narrow lens of so-called "revealed truths" and uncritical faith. These abhorrent and anti-intellectual "fundamentalist" strategies have given us genocidal fascist wars, barbaric Christian crusades, and dehumanizing Islamic terrorism.
Ironically the failure of critical thinking has also manifest within intellectual circles in the modern era as existentialist angst which emerges with the denial of the very existence of Natural Law (please see Jean-Paul Sartre). Existentialism inherently maintains that existence is meaningless, even absurd. Confronted with this cold observation, the existentialist has no real choice but despair, a choice the Stoic would see as a failure of reason.
But to the Stoic there is a Natural Law that governs the universe in its micro and macrocosms, and that the human project is firmly embedded in and part of the universal design. Human salvation within this context consists in the discovery of this Law - a project that requires dedicated multi-disciplinary "detached" methodologies. The truly authentic human response to this Natural Law is to conform to its dictates - which requires choosing rightly and authentically in every action that we take - in other words, with virtue. This is the only way we can be fully human and fully happy.
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.