Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stoic Physics and Chemistry - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.50

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Meditation VII.50 - Stoic Physics and Chemistry - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

That which has grown from the earth to the earth,(1)
But that which has sprung from heavenly seed,(2)
Back to the heavenly realms returns.(3)

This is either a dissolution of the mutual involution of the atoms,(4) or a similar dispersion of the unsentient elements.(5)


(1) In Stoic physics there are five distinct components of matter: four passive (earth, air, water, fire) and one active (aether or pneuma in microcosm and Logos in macrocosm) - see Meditation XI.20. The qualitative "idea" of gravitation certainly predates Newton. In Stoic and Aristotelian physics these five elements are attracted to each other - earth to earth, air to air, etc. The four passive elements combine in various ways in response to the agency of the active element (the Law of Nature). In time these combinations undergo continuous change from seed to maturation to dissolution and death. Life, or the creative process, interrupts the longer term attraction of like to like during any cycle - such as the cycle of a human life. In modern terms we would refer to this as a decrease in entropy of an open thermodynamic system (a system that exchanges energy and matter with its environment). Because no system is ever truly open, in time these combinations or "involutions" decay under the influence of the broader second law of thermodynamics - and the entropy of the system increases resulting in dissolution and decay and "earth [returns] to the earth." Although Marcus and the Stoics had not discovered the quantitative laws of thermodynamics, they did understand these thermodynamic processes intuitively as part of a broader law of Nature governed through the aegis of the active (and divine) element of nature, Logos.

(2) Logos is the material element from which the heavenly seed springs. Marcus uses the term "heavenly" in the sense that this material element is immutable - and hence divine. Nonetheless this is a material. Logos is certainly not a supernatural realm of nature in the sense that many religions use the term heavenly. In modern physics and the "New Stoicism" this "material" manifests as the various forces and fields of physics (gravitational, electromagnetic, weak, strong, etc.).

(3) The seeds from Logos that regulate the cycles of birth and death in living matter, or the chemical processes in non-living systems (from simple molecular combinations to the growth and decay of a galaxy), are themselves subject to the broader "gravitational" attraction of like-to-like, and eventually return to the "heavenly" realm - a process that would be completed when the entropy of the universe is maximized (the so-called heat death of the universe). In Stoicism this state would initiate a renewal of the cosmic cycle leading to a cosmic rebirth (see Meditation VIII.06 - The Big Crunch).

(4) The term "involution" refers to the chemical combinations of elements (in living and non-living systems) that override the "normal" gravitational tendency of like-to-like. Marcus and the Stoics were ambivalent as to how these involutions were dissolved or what aspect of natural Law initiated the decay. It was certain however that every system does dissolve in time.

(5) The four passive elements are not endowed with reason. The fifth element Logos is also referred to as the "universal intelligence" and the source of all reason as well as the source of sentient life. The Stoics were open to the probability that sentient life might take forms other than human.

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.

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