Saturday, March 21, 2015

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books V, VI, and VII

Book V

Book V sees the introduction of some new ideas that have either not been seen yet, or only been hinted at before. Hadot notes (The Inner Citadel, pp. 265-266):

In Book V, the themes which had dominated Books II and III disappear or become blurred once and for all. In particular, although death is sometimes still mentioned as a possibility which might compromise our efforts toward perfection, it is now also present as a liberation for which we must wait with patience and confidence; for it will deliver us from a human world in which moral life--the only thing that counts, and the only value--is constantly frustrated (V, 10, 6; V, 33, 5).

However, the major theme that unfolds in Book V is the relation between one's own nature and the nature of the Whole. We should not worry about what others say and do, but follow the path laid out by one's own nature and the nature of the Whole; "the path is one and the same for both" (V, 3). One's life consists in traveling our path until we give our breath back to the air and our body back to the earth (4). When bad things happen, it is not any different from when a doctor prescribes a harsh treatment for the sake of health; the Whole prescribes disease or lameness for the sake of universal harmony, "the health of the universe, the welfare and well-being of Zeus" (8). "The intelligence of the Whole has the common good in view" (30). We should keep in mind that the end of rational creatures lies in community (16) and what does not hurt the community does not harm its members (22). If another person does us wrong, what is that to us? His actions are his own, but our actions should unfold from our own nature as the common nature of the Whole has placed it (25). If something apparently bad is not a vice in our own characters, or due to any vice in our own characters, or harmful to the common good, then we have no reason to be disturbed about it (35). We should simply focus on things that are appropriate to and complete our natures as human beings; other things are simply irrelevant to us (15). When philosophy or reason requires of us something we don't want, we should recognize that the reason is that we want something our nature does not want (9). We should honor universal reason, which is that which is best in the universe, and likewise honor that which is best in ourselves, our particular reason (21).

We are made out of cause and matter, which did not come from nothing and will not return to nothing when we die, but instead will take up another place in the universe (13). We should not be proud of our place, because "existence is like a river in perpetual flow" so that we live in the midst of an infinity of past and future (23). Indeed, this should be our general reflection:

Think of existence as a whole, in which you have a very small share; think of eternity, of which a brief and momentary portion has been allotted to you; think of destiny and how small a part of it is yours. (24)

Book VI

Books VI and VII mostly consist of short reminders. Some notable ones:

"The best method of defense is not to become like your enemy" (VI, 6).

"Do not, because something is hard for you to do, consider it impossible for man to achieve; but if anything is possible for man and his proper work, think that you too can achieve it" (19).

"Painful labor is not contrary to nature fo the foot or the hand, as long as the foot fulfills the functions of a foot and the hand the functions of a hand. In the same way, painful labor is not contrary to the nature of man as man, as long as he fulfills the function of a man. And if it is not contrary to his nature, it is not an evil for him." (33)

"Are you resentful because you weigh only so many pounds and not over two hundred? No more should you resent that you have only so many years to live and no more." (49)

"That which does not benefit the swarm does not benefit the bee" (54).

In the reminders of Book VI, however, we also get more of the obviously personal touch, as Marcus Aurelius struggles with the problem of being both Emperor and philosopher. Palace and philosophy are like stepmother and mother; if you have both, you look after your stepmother, as your duty is, but you return in love to your mother. Returning frequently to philosophy makes palace life bearable (12). When the rich delicacies and luxuries of court are set before you, see them as what they are, "destroy the myth which makes them proud": the fine dishes are carcasses, the Tyrian purple is shellfish-juice on sheep's wool, and so forth (13). One must fight off the vanity of the court:

See to it that you do not become Caesarized, or dyed with that coloring. For it does happen. Therefore treasure simplicity, goodness, purity, dignity, lack of affectation, love of justice, piety, kindliness, graciousness, and strength for your appropriate duties. Strive to remain such as philosophy wanted to make you. Revere the gods, protect men. (30)

He should, instead of becoming Caesarized, be a disciple of Antoninus Pius, his adopted father and predecessor on the throne. Nothing, the Emperor reflects, is beneficial to him as a rational creature except what benefits the communities of which he is a member: as Antoninus, Rome; as man, the world (44).

Book VII

Hadot notes a number of repetitions in Book VII (The Inner Citadel, p. 268):

Thus, he repeats several times that we have the power to criticize and to modify the value-judgments which we apply to things (VII, 2, 2; VII, 14; VII, 16; VII, 17, 2; VII, 68); that things are subject to rapid and universal metamorphosis (VII, 10; VII, 18; VII, 19; VII, 23; VII 25); that it is vain to seek for fame and glory (VII, 6; VII, 10; VII, 21; VII, 62).

Book VII also has a significant number of quotations from, and allusions to, other authors (some of which are certainly secondhand rather than direct): Democritus (30), Epicurus (33, 64), Plato (35, 44, 45, 66), Antisthenes (36), Euripides (38, 40, 41, 42, 43, 50, 51, and perhaps also 39), Plutarch (52), Epictetus (36, 63), and unknown authors (39, 51).

Some notable comments from Book VII:

"Do not feel shame at being helped. It is your purpose to perform the task before you, as a soldier does in a siege. What if you, being lame, cannot reach the battlements alone but can do so with another's assistance?" (7)

"For a creature endowed with reason, an action in accord with its nature is also in accord with reason" (11).

"Be upright or be put right" (12).

"Whenever anyone wrongs you, consider what view of good or evil prompted his action. Realizing this, you will pity him, be neither surprised nor angry at him." (26)

"As if you had already died and lived only till now, live the rest of your life as a kind of bonus, in accord with nature" (56).

"It is ridiculous not to escape from one's own vices, which it is possible to do, but to flee from the vices of others, which is impossible" (71).

to be continued

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