Sunday, February 19, 2012
The Poison of Prejudice - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VI.57
Meditation VI.57 - The Poison of Prejudice - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
To the jaundiced honey tastes bitter,(1) and to those bitten by mad dogs water causes fear;(2) and to little children the ball is a fine thing.(3) Why then am I angry? Do you think that a false opinion has less power than the bile in the jaundiced, or the poison in one who is bitten by a mad dog?(4)
(1) Jaundice causes an excess amount of the bile pigment bilirubin in the fat layer under the skin. Either the body is producing too much, or it's not getting rid of it fast enough. Honey was, and is still used, in treating jaundice. A bitter taste is a common symptom of jaundice.
(2) Hydrophobia (fear of water) is one of the late symptoms of rabies. It is not so much a fear of water as difficulty in swallowing, which cause those afflicted to shun liquids.
(3) To children a ball is "a fine thing." The point Marcus is making here is that a ball is just a ball. A ball is neither a fine thing, nor a bad thing. By comparison, the root causes of jaundice and rabies are also - in and of themselves - neither good things nor bad things. They are poisons to those afflicted, but when removed from those afflicted by disease they are are substances with no inherent power.
(4) When we hold a false opinion - such as a prejudice - we can become unduly riled or angry. The anger may be real, but the cause is unjustified, and the false opinion that is causing this anger is - in and of itself - powerless when it is withdrawn. Our opinions - or 'attitudes' in modern parlance - are positions that are entirely under human control. This is a critical concept in Stoic philosophy. False opinions are contrary to nature, and contrary to reason. True opinion can only be formed through the exercise of reason, and reason is what defines our inherent human nature.
The remedy for false opinion underlies the fundamental method of Stoicism: the exercise of critical thinking - mediated through meditation. Allowing unexamined opinions to regulate our actions is contrary to human nature. This is really a surrender of reason to passion - with potentially deadly consequences. Yet, many of us carry about false and unexamined opinions for much of our lives - believing, ironically, that these false attitudes will have no significant import on our lives. The point Marcus is illustrating here is that false opinions are indeed very dangerous. They can be extraordinarily powerful, and if we leave them unexamined, we can do extraordinary damage to ourselves.
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.