Thursday, May 5, 2011
Reflections - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.17
Meditation VII.17 - Reflections - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
Eudaemonia (happiness)(1) is a good daemon,(2) or a good thing. What then are you doing here, O imagination?(3) Go away, I entreat you by the gods, as you did come, for I want you not. But you are come according to your old fashion. I am not angry with you: only go away.(4)
(1) In Greek philosophy Eudaemonia is the highest human good. It is usually translated as "happiness" but the original meaning is far more nuanced and incorporates the notion of happiness as a complete end in itself. Literally Eudaemonia means "the state of having a good indwelling spirit, a good genius." In Stoic philosophy the word is more closely associated with serenity or peace. A Christian reader might associated the idea with being in a "state of divine grace."
(2) A daemon is the Latinized spelling of the Greek δαίμων. Daemons are good or benevolent "supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes," and differ from the Judeo-Christian "demon," a malignant spirit that can seduce, afflict, or possess humans.
(3) We generally regard human imagination in a positive sense, as a creative virtue - a good thing - that reflects our capacity to project "what if" situations in the mind's eye - situations that do not (yet) exist in reality, but could unfold given certain conditions. This is the sort of imagination used by a good chess player. Imagination acting in this sense, is how human reason operates. It is an essential aspect of critical thinking. Marcus is using the word "imagination" here in its negative sense, or the ability of the mind to construct imaginary fears about things that may never be, or about things that ought never be a source of fear. Imagination in this context seeds timidity and cowardice and paranoia. In fact, from the Stoic perspective, this sort of imagination is actually a psychological aberration. It is also irrational, because it is generally fueled by the fear of physical harm, or a loss of material wealth, or concerns that our reputation might be damaged by our actions. But for a Stoic these things ought never keep us from acting rightly, because these are self-centered fears, and all self-centered fears are against the nature of a human being, because we are designed by nature to live for others - in other words to be social - in all of our actions. The irrational use of imagination in this way also flaunts two of the five Stoic "Commandments" discussed elsewhere: namely, thoughtlessness, and antisocial behavior. The use of imagination in this negative sense demonstrates the extraordinary power of Stoicism to address issues of mental health - in this case one of the underlying causes of paranoia - a crippling human disorder. A fuller discussion of the application of Stoicism to modern issues concerning mental illness is covered in detail in the book in Chapter 3, "Stoicism and Vice," Stoicism and Mental Health, p 73-79. The discussion there examines the power of Stoicism in offering meditative - as opposed to medicative - remedies to human malaise.
(4) Marcus addresses the emergence of paranoia fueled by the imagination lightly. He is never angry - for anger itself is also irrational - when the mind begins to operate irrationally. Instead he simply takes note of an aberrant thought process and dismissively commands it to "go away."
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.