Saturday, April 23, 2011
Human Invincibility - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.22
Meditation VII.22 - Human Invincibility - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
It is peculiar to humans to love even those who do wrong.(1) And this happens, if when they do wrong it occurs to you that they are kin, and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally,(2) and that soon both of you will die;(3) and above all, that the wrong-doer has done you no harm,(4) for the wrong acts of another can never make your ruling faculty worse than it was before.(5)
(1) This claim is figurative. Marcus is aware that non-humans are unable to reason, and as such unable to act wrongly. Also love - in the Stoic universe - is an irresistible attraction toward that which is intrinsically good, or according to nature. Since non-humans can never willfully act contrary to nature in this sense, their actions can never do "wrong."
(2) Because humans are endowed with reason, we have a higher burden of responsibility. Unlike non-humans, we are able to act wrongly, that is, contrary to nature. Interestingly however, Marcus claims that when humans do act wrongly, it is invariably done unintentionally - through ignorance of the law of nature that we have contravened. This ignorance mitigates those wrong actions, but does not let us off the hook. Human beings are required to think before acting - this is one of the five Stoic principles discussed throughout the Meditations (avoiding anger, avoiding alienation, remaining indifferent toward materialisms and its pleasures, being relentlessly honest, and tempering the emotions through reason). Humans are duty bound by these principles to know the law. Thus the civil concept that 'ignorance of the law is no excuse,' applies equally here to natural law. This means that although we may have acted in ignorance, we are still responsible for our wrong actions. Additionally, our wrong actions will still nonetheless make us unhappy, but the harm they do is only to ourselves. Marcus never denies the possibility that wrong or evil can be willful - that is, done deliberately and in full knowledge of the law. But no human being - other than the perpetrator of a wrong in this spirit - can know if an action is in truth willful. We must in all charity and with full human compassion always allow the evil-doer the benefit of this doubt, and presume ignorance.
(3) Death is an ever-present reminder that whatever the circumstances surrounding a transgression. Both you and the doer of wrong will soon die and the consequences of the wrong actions will die with you both.
(4) No harm can befall a human being through the actions of others be they willful or through ignorance - this is the central tenet of Stoicism. We are like Gods as it were. Our intrinsic humanity - the Logos in us - is invulnerable and immutable to harm.
(5) The ruling faculty is reason - the Logos that defines us and circumscribes our nature.
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.