Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stoicism versus Existentialism: Anticipating (and Denying) Sartre - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VII.48

Sierra Club

Meditation VII.48 - Stoicism versus Existentialism: Anticipating (and Denying) Sartre - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

This is a fine saying of Plato: That whoever is discoursing about humanity should look also at earthly things as if viewed from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labors, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.(1)


(1) This is essential Stoic method, and is fundamental to all forms of detached scientific objectivity. Marcus advises us to "think before we speak." Humanity is a complex political organism. If we must discuss human things we need to examine the human organism in all of its rainbowed diversities. The Law of Nature works in all spheres of existence and manifests - not only in the unfolding of the physical universe - but in the unfolding of the human project.

This close examination of human nature offers us an opportunity to discover the parallels between the behavior of the cosmos writ large, and the behavior of the human organism. For the Stoic everything in Nature is subject to the same natural Law. This approach is very different from the parochial approaches of the religious or secular dogmatist. Religious fundamentalist dogmas view the world through the narrow lens of so-called "revealed truths" and uncritical faith. These abhorrent and anti-intellectual "fundamentalist" strategies have given us genocidal fascist wars, barbaric Christian crusades, and dehumanizing Islamic terrorism.

Ironically the failure of critical thinking has also manifest within intellectual circles in the modern era as existentialist angst which emerges with the denial of the very existence of Natural Law (please see Jean-Paul Sartre). Existentialism inherently maintains that existence is meaningless, even absurd. Confronted with this cold observation, the existentialist has no real choice but despair, a choice the Stoic would see as a failure of reason.

But to the Stoic there is a Natural Law that governs the universe in its micro and macrocosms, and that the human project is firmly embedded in and part of the universal design. Human salvation within this context consists in the discovery of this Law - a project that requires dedicated multi-disciplinary "detached" methodologies. The truly authentic human response to this Natural Law is to conform to its dictates - which requires choosing rightly and authentically in every action that we take - in other words, with virtue. This is the only way we can be fully human and fully happy.

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.


Brumi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Gough said...

Enjoying this posting - Why ...
`Confronted with this cold observation, the existentialist has no real choice but despair, a choice the Stoic would see as a failure of reason.` ?
I am reminded of Boswell`s puzzlement over the fact that Hume didn`t die in despair. No puzzle - Hume does NOT subscribe to one of the central myths of this culture - that despair emerges from perceptions of something that is not Utilitarian in nature.

NOTHING in nature is Utilitarian. True, there are things that appear to duplicate what is described by the Utilitarian & provide an awkward proof - but that`s a result of perceptual bonding, encouraged by most defined education which seeks the ONE rather than the `none`as if there is such a division.
Or so I see it - lol.


Anonymous said...

Your brief handling here of existentialism brings to "mind" this quote of Wittgenstein's:
"I read: 'philosophers are no nearer to the meaning of 'Reality' than Plato got,...' What a strange situation. How extraordinary that Plato could have got even as far as he did! Or that we could not get any further! Was it because Plato was so extremely clever?"

You gotta love Wittgenstein.

Anonymous said...

This post, and indeed the whole project, misses a pretty important point - Aurelius was NOT a Stoic. Or at least not strictly a Stoic. If he had been, he'd be as little read today as Epictetus. Ironic considering the content of this post, the Meditations abound in just the sort of existential angst you claim Stoics such as Marcus were above. That's much of the charm of the book. Marcus Aurelius was a man, and not a robot. Presumably this is the case even with Epictetus, but the difference is that Marcus's book allows us backstage. We see him struggling. He wasn't half so confident as you seem to be in the ultimate efficacy of the Stoic worldview. His book is Stoic, but also existentialist, misanthropic, depressive, deeply ethical, and at times approaching cosmic (those are the passages that some, in their folly, have tried to attribute to his opium use).

This is a deeply complex man, but make no mistake - he was a man. And I'll tell you something, his religion/philosophy (if we take this mixture to be a religion) was far more interesting and far more human, and ultimately probably far more tenable, than Stoicism proper. There's a reason it's survived and thrived quite distinct from the much more thorough and dogmatic and didactic Stoic texts by Epictetus.

Thinker said...

Existentialism holds that there is no inherent meaning to life. Existence precedes essence. This surely does not refute a Natural Law, for we all necessarily exist in Nature. Rather, it proposes an individual responsibility to find meaning within one's life, and furthermore live authentically according to this meaning. Is this not the ultimate interpretation of freedom of the will? If so, how can there be no real choice but despair. To paraphrase one Marcus Aurelius, the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. Existentialist angst may surely manifest where meaning is not found, but it cannot be seen as the conclusion of an Existentialist viewpoint. To put it more concisely, at what point does an Existentialist become a Stoic? When he finds meaning in his life through the discovery of the Natural Law?