Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Med. VI.55 - Annotated and Explained in Modern Context by Russell McNeil

Meditation VI.55 - Balance and Harmony - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

If sailors abused the helm or the sick the doctor, would they listen to anybody else; or how could the helm secure the safety of those in the ship or the doctor the health of those whom she attends?(1)


(1) This meditation is intended as an argument for internal harmony and balance. A modern Marcus might just simply say “chill.” Marcus paints a picture (or has us imagine) what can happen in a society where there is a breakdown in the relationships between an authority (ship pilots and doctors) and those served by those authorities (passengers on a ship, and patients). If there is dissent within relationships like these, both sides in the relationship suffer. Everyone on a ship does down from bad piloting – and doctors lose their patients (and their livelihood) from bad doctoring. Marcus understands that “following nature” brings about the sort of harmony and balance that comes from the primacy of authority (or mind) internally. The metaphors presented in the meditation point to the internal relationship in mind between reason (the authority) and the body (that which is ruled by the mind).

Modern Context (Meditation by Russell McNeil)

Flickr Link: Chill (Suggested by Meditation VI.55)

The relationship between reason and passion is a lawful contract between ruler and ruled, between a trained rider and a disciplined horse. Rulers rule; the ruled obey. Harmony is the balance between these two. Injustice and lawlessness are alien in Nature. Disharmony is extinction. This is the Law.

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 The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book.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.


Anonymous said...

From my understanding, the early Stoicism as espoused by Zeno was considerably different than the late Roman Stoicism of Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius. How much so, we can never know.

The Roman government liked Stoicism because it fostered the kind of collectivism that would often make for loyal citizens and soldiers. Although, not necessarily, e.g., Cato's fight against Caesar. But anyway, how do we know whether the original Stoicism wasn't more individualist than the late Stoicism, which is primarily all of it that survives?

Zeno went as far as to advocate theoretical anarchism, at least as far as a society of Stoic sages was concerned. That's a pretty far stretch from the "what does no harm to the state, does no harm to it's citizen; people are to their state as bees to the hive" stuff Aurelius wrote in his Meditations.

Not to mention, Marcus Aurelius would almost by necessity have to have a different outlook on Stoic ideals than other people, he was the highest ranking politician in the entire empire. So keeping the nation cohesive would've been his #1 priority. A homeless Stoic might see it in a different light.

How do we know the late Stoicism wasn't just a twisting of the original ideals to make the Romans more agreeable to the interests of the state? Just like modern day religions have been twisted by governments for exactly the same aims.

Note: I've never read the Discourses.

Russell McNeil said...

Thank you for your comment. The mature Roman Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius may differ in nuance from the Stoicism of Zeno of Citium (333-264 BCE) and Chrysippus - a movement that took root in Athens during the century following the death of Socrates (469-399 BCE). The philosophy does retain its essential flavour however as an offshoot of Stoic Physics. In other words human nature and nature writ large are subject to the same law - the Law of Nature. There may have been some discussion about the nature of the law, and the moral implications of that Law, but the essential ingredients of the Stoic movement retained - and still retains its inherent motif: we come from nature, we live in nature, and we return to nature when we die and the moral template for all actions is guided by our understanding of Physics. Stoicism was and is still inherently materialistic. We can only understand our moral duty insofar as we understand the Law that we ought to follow. Stoicism was and is a dynamic philosophical system - that is it becomes more refined as we become more aware of the law that we "ought" to follow. We've come a long was in our understanding of that law - i.e. modern physics - since ancient times. But, the essential features of Stoicism retain their character. So, Stoicism by its very construction is never static. The late Roman Stoicism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius differs from the Stoicism of Zeno - and differs today with the New Stoicism that we are discussing here. Stoicism is never a "done deal." It's refinements and its clarity emerge as science reveals the details of the Law. My own position on this is to ally myself with the view that Stoicism is a living philosophy which looks always to Socrates as its first practitioner - and ultimate moral authority (a view of the early Stoics). But, like Socrates, the search for understanding of the right way to act in any situation is a never ending but ever growing exercise. One of the major shifts in Stoicism in the modern era vs. the ancient form is its lack of determinism - a liberating shift in my view. Ancient physics was deterministic - modern physics obviously not so. This does not invalidate Stoicism. The early Stoics and the late Stoics and indeed the New Stoics of our era have this is common: Stoicism is a living - even mutating philosophy; it is changing and indeed must change, as our understanding of nature evolves.