Thursday, October 8, 2009
Einstein the Stoic - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.18
Meditation VIII.18 - Einstein the Stoic - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
That which has died falls not out of the universe.1 If it stays here, it also changes here, and is dissolved into its proper parts, which are elements of the universe and of yourself.2 And these too change, and they murmur not.3,4
(1) Stoicism is a science based philosophy grounded firmly on physics. The first sentence in this meditation is as clear a statement of the law of energy conservation as we can expect from the ancient world, and - while poetic in structure - it certainly conforms with modern understanding. No change in anything - including the death of a living thing - results in annihilation. In other words nothing ever falls "out of the universe." The modern law of mass-energy conservation expressed by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) as E=mc2 would come as no surprise to the Stoics. For example, the mass that seems to disappear in a nuclear reaction does not fall out of the universe, it is rather converted into energy which we now understand as carried by other particles which although massless are nonetheless real. Stoic physics divided matter into active and passive components. A Stoic physicist in the ancient world would nod sagely at this fact of nature while noting that this transformation could be explained in pre-modern terms as a change from the passive to active forms.
(2) That matter dissolves "into its proper parts" is a Stoic assertion of the atomic or particulate nature of matter. The ancients saw the proper parts in simpler terms than we do now, but the physical claim is no less true. Matter is a composite chemical and molecular arrangement. Under the laws of nature matter transforms into its basic elements in response to the actions of the basic forces of nature. These elements express in an infinite variety of forms, but the basic elements of all matter are the same throughout the universe. Every atom in the human body was forged in a nuclear reaction that occurred in a long since dead ancient star. Human beings are very accurately "elements of the universe."
(3) The changes that occur everywhere throughout the universe are natural and divinely mediated. This includes decay and death. The changes are divine because they are a consequence of natural law - the forces of nature - which embrace the Stoic concept of natural divinity. These forces are divine in the sense that they these laws qua laws are immutable and perfect. We ought not murmur about change or death (that is express discontent about these inevitabilities) because to do so would be to oppose nature and the Stoic ought always live according to nature.
(4) This meditation can be reformulated in many ways, but a particularly beautiful expression of the interconnectedness of the human spirit with the natural world is voiced by Albert Einstein: "A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
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.