Meditations, book IX

MarcusIt has been some time since I’ve tackled a book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, so let’s get back to it, with some highlights from book IX.

The book begins with an interesting passage: “Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.”

Here the “divinity” can be interpreted, as usual, as god or nature, and Marcus is saying something remarkably modern: nature has made us (we would say has evolved us) into rational social beings, with what modern scientists may call a moral instinct, so to act unsocially or irrationally is literally going against (human) nature.

The idea that human beings ought not to behave irrationally is further developed a bit later (#2): “the destruction of the understanding is a pestilence, much more indeed than any such corruption and change of this atmosphere that surrounds us. For the latter corruption is a pestilence of animals so far as they are animals; but the former is a pestilence of men so far as they are men.”

At #4 Marcus tells us why it is irrational — according to the Stoic view of things — to do wrong: “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad.”

But what if others do wrong? We get the answer at #10: “If you are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong; but if you cannot, remember that indulgence is given to you for this purpose.”

And he returns to the idea of human beings as inherently social animals at #23: “As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.” Followed again by practical advise when we find out that people do or say bad things about us (#27): “When another blames you or hates you, or when men say anything injurious about you, approach their poor souls, penetrate within, and see what kind of men they are. You will discover that there is no reason to be concerned that these men have this or that opinion about you.”

Shortly thereafter (#28) we find one of Marcus’ recurring statements of “agnosticism”: “In a word, if there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not also be governed by it.” I don’t think he was actually an agnostic, certainly not in the modern sense of the word, but this and many other quotes from the Meditations do attest pretty clearly that the Stoics didn’t think believing in god or providence was essential to arrive at their conception of ethics, which is the main reason modern practitioners are interested in Stoicism to begin with.

Not convinced? Here’s another one (#39): “Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?”

6 thoughts on “Meditations, book IX

  1. Massimo,

    We can both applaud the existence of a moral law and the words of M. Aurelius:

    • “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad.”

    However, digging deeper, we ask “Why does the violation of moral law degrade us!” We “violate” physical laws all the time without consequence. We get on airplanes and bungy-jump, usually without consequence. What makes the moral law so different?

    When we violate moral law, we not only feel bad, but it also does bad. This is true not only in Moscow and NYC but also among ISIS and the Islamic countries. It is true today and will be true tomorrow. We can’t escape it by going to Siberia or Alaska. Nor can we avoid it through technological advances.

    We not only experience moral law, but it even communicates its displeasure to us. Nevertheless, it also suggests a partial remedy – admitting our violation. In fact, it can also be argued that this law has its own elegance.

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  2. “nature has made us (we would say has evolved us) into rational social beings, with what modern scientists may call a moral instinct, so to act unsocially or irrationally is literally going against (human) nature.”

    Hope this is not undue repetition, but as well as formulating Stoicism without the gods, I really think you need to re-formulate without that definition of us as ‘rational social beings’. Humans with their kludge rationality can at most be said to be capable of rationality under certain favorable circumstances. And human morality, indeed evolutionary morality has not ever been described as a high morality. Stoicism is one of the high moralities in human history, hence attractive to some early Christians. Christianity itself abandoned its morality in the long often sordid epic of Christendom.


  3. Robin, I don’t think the ancient Stoics themselves would have maintained more than the idea that human beings are capable of rationality, as opposed to actually, always, being rational. That’s why Sages are rare or non-existent. The crucial idea, rather, is that thinking through things rationally is the right thing to do to navigate the complex social life of a human being.

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  4. It’s quite reassuring to remember that humanity has evolved into a social structure, and that morality comes from fulfilling that social imperative. But Man is also capable of sentient thought, which may conflict with natural morality and benefit himself rather than his society. That’s at least how I see it. Perhaps the Stoics preferred to understand nature as divinely intelligent (“logos”), not having knowledge of evolution.

    But it’s quite evident that Marcus Aurelius was not an agnostic. He mentions many times that denial of divinity is blasphemy. The citation from Book IX: 28 is probably one of the lesser clear references to this. It’s actually a logial fallacy called a false dichotomy, where there is a false opposition set up between two choices, as if they were the only possibilities. It’s common in many theistic apologetic arguments. In this case, it claims that either there is an order, and there is god, or there is disorder without god. It doesn’t offer a third possibility — order without god, spontaneously by the scientific laws of the universe. I wondered how accurate this translation was, for I try not to imbue into the ancients too much of the modern that they may not have had. I tried translating this passage, and as is often the case with ancient literature, it is long-winded and circuitous, but I came up with the following, which seems to align well enough with the translation. Here is it whole, for context.

    The same are the cycles of the universe, above and below, out of an age into an age. And surely the thought of the whole impels onto each, if there is just the whole, you will receive the impulse of that (thought): or if it impelled, once and for all, they (thoughts) will then follow the remaining things and what(ever) extends (from that thought); for in some fashion, there are atoms or the indivisible. Then, in whole, either there is a god, or truly all things hold: either it is in vain, and you should not be in vain. Soon, the earth will cover us all, after both the earth itself and those things will turn over into the boundless and, back, those things (will turn over) into the boundless. For someone, pondering the fluctuations of the changes (“things turned over”) and of (the) differences, will regard the swiftness of every mortal thing.


  5. Thank you for a well thought out response. I appreciate the energy you put into your translation and you have proved your point “as is often the case with ancient literature, it is long-winded and circuitous” regarding other works. We can call each translation into question for its accuracy in moving it to the present time. Not all of us would have the education, intelligence, nor tenacity to interpret each work for ourselves.
    For others I recommend a technique known as the “commonplace book.” Also known as a “hodgepodge book.” An example of this is the Jefferson Bible where Jefferson took three versions (I believe English, Greek, and French) of the New Testament and blended the interpreted words reported to be of the Savior into his own interpretation of what the master really said. Don’t know the truth of the accuracy of that, but by gosh, it was his own understanding of what other minds conceived.


  6. nano,

    “it’s quite evident that Marcus Aurelius was not an agnostic”

    Yes, I think that’s clear. But it is equally clear — from his repeated “either gods or atoms” comments — that he didn’t think the metaphysics would make much difference for the ethics. In general, I think the important part of the Stoic metaphysics, the one that does have a direct connection to the ethics, is concerned with principles of cause and effect, and with the general idea of “following nature,” or, as Becker wrote in his update to Stoicism, “follow the facts.”


    “I appreciate the energy you put into your translation”

    That is definitely not my translation! It’s the classic one by Gregory Hays.

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