Saturday, April 04, 2015

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books XI and XII

Book XI

Book XI is different in quite a few ways from the rest of the work. Many of the comments are more allusive and obscure. This section of the work also sees the introduction of new topics and new approaches.

The book opens with a reflection on the nature of reason, identifying three major properties of the rational. First, it is in its own power: "it sees itself, it shapes itself, it makes itself such as it wishes to be, it gathers its own fruit" (XI, 1). Second, it in some sense engages with the Whole itself, being able to grasp something of the entire universe and all of time on the basis of its present perspective. Third, it is also characterized by law:

It is also characteristic of the rational soul to love its neighbors, to be truthful, to show reverence, and to honor nothing more than itself. (1)

This goes beyond just being governed by law, as everything in the Stoic universe is; the rational soul is, in some sense, law itself, so that one's own reason, developed rightly, and the reason involved in justice itself are in some way the same.

We also get something of a Stoic aesthetics here, as well. There is the obvious idea that we are not to be overcome by our entertainments and works of art, but focus wholly on virtue (2). But Marcus Aurelius also clearly sees value in art as instrumental to the good life. He gives us a brief resume of a number of genres of drama, in more or less historical order, that clarifies some of the questions of what dramatic art can contribute to life by identifying a sort of deterioration in dramatic quality over time:

Tragedies were first produced to remind us of what happens, to show that this is how things naturally happen, and that you should not be vexed on the larger stage of life by things which delight you in the theater; for you see that this is the course they must take....After tragedy the Old Comedy was introduced. Its freedom of speech had educational value, and its very directness usefully reminded the spectators of the evils of arrogance....Reflect on the nature of the Middle Comedy which came afterwards, with what aim the New Comedy was introduced still later, and how it gradually slipped into mere love the techniques of representation. One realizes that even these writers said some useful things, but what was the whole aim and purpose of this kind of poetry and drama? (6)

Book XI also gives us the only mention of Christianity (3); Marcus criticizes them for obstinacy in martyrdom and contrasts this with rational Stoic acceptance of death. This mention is sometimes regarded as an interpolation, on grammatical grounds. Given the nature of the interpolation (assuming it was one), however, it seems that at least an early marginaliast thought that the Emperor was making an allusion to Christianity in the comment; and the contrast seems a perfectly reasonable one for a pagan Stoic to make.

One of the more interesting, yet more obscure notes in the Book is found in section 18, in which we get a series of considerations which are presented as something worth treating "as gifts from the Muses," which make it possible to live a truly and appropriately human (and thus rational) life. We might summarize them roughly as follows:

(1) One's relation to others, that we were born for each other's sake.
(2) How people act in their daily lives, and how vain it often is.
(3) That those who do wrong do so ignorantly and involuntarily.
(4) That we ourselves frequently err.
(5) That even when people seem to do wrong, there may be more than meets the eye.
(6) That human life is very brief.
(7) That we are not annoyed by the actions of others but by how we judge them.
(8) That our anger and vexation and the actions of others have worse consequences for us than those actions.
(9) "Kindliness is invincible if it is genuine, not malicious or hypocritical."

To these nine, Marcus adds a fourth, "a tenth gift from the leader of the Muses": that it is absurd to expect lesser men to do no wrong, because it is absurd to desire the impossible. (It would be interesting if some kind of correspondence between these "gifts" and the actual Muses and Apollo could be identified, but I can see no definite pattern.)

Book XI ends with a large number of brief extracts from the Emperor's reading, much as we found in Book VII, although there are signs that much of the quotation here is from memory, since they are often not exact quotations and names and stories seem occasionally mixed up. There are comments from Aesop, probably through Horace (22), from Epictetus (33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, probably 23), possibly Aristotle (35), Epicurus, probably through Seneca (26); Homer (31); Hesiod (32); Solon, perhaps through Diogenes Laertius (29); and a number of apparently unknown sources (27, 28, 30, 39).

Book XII

Hadot notes (The Inner Citadel, p. 273) that the opposition between the causal (the guiding or determining) and the material is recurrent in Book XII (8, 10, 18, 29). The divine is also a repeated theme, both the gods and the divine within us. Perhaps we can think of this book as being particularly concerned with stripping away what is not foundational; we should focus on the now (XII, 1), strip ourselves of the material (2), avoid letting other things separate us from our reason (3), we should observe causes stripped of their husks (8, cp. 29), we should see things as they are (10), and so forth.

Some notable comments:

"If it is not the right thing, don't do it; if it is not true, don't say it." (17)

"Realize at some time that you have within you something stronger and more divine than the things which cause your passions and which would rule you altogether like a puppet on a string. What is my thought at the moment? Fear? Suspicion? Passion? Something of the sort?" (19)

The final note (36), which serves as a sort of end note to the whole book, as well, speaks of the end of our life. We are given a role in life. For some it may last for five years, and for others fifty; complaining that your subplot only lasts for three acts rather than five is to miss the point of being on the stage at all. What makes us come into life also sets for us a limit of that life, and the latter is no more a matter in our hands than the former: "So depart graciously, for he who dismisses you is also gracious."

Works Cited

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, G. M. A. Grube, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 1983).

Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel, Michael Chase, tr., Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA: 1998).

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