Let’s take this week of Saturnalia to finish up our readings of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’ll tackle book XI today and book XII on Thursday. Not that either book has anything to do with the festivities (though Seneca wrote a letter to Lucilius about it).
Somewhat uncharacteristically, Marcus criticizes a group of people, the Christians, which he mentions a few other times throughout the Meditations. It is within a passage (#3) where he discusses one’s readiness to die:
“What a great soul is that which is ready, at any requisite moment, to be separated from the body and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist. But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.”
More positively, one can use this quote as further evidence, if any were needed, that the Stoics approved of, but certainly didn’t take lightly, the possibility of suicide.
At #8 Marcus deploys a metaphor to remind himself of the Stoic idea that human beings are not meant to live in isolation, but always as an integral part of a society: “A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So, too, a man, when he is separated from another man, has fallen off from the whole social community.” And falling off the social community is against nature, to use Stoic lingo, and so it undermines eudaimonia.
One of the things that it means for humans to be part of an organic whole is explained at #13: “Shall any man hate me? That will be his affair. But I will be mild and benevolent toward every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.” And he continues (#18): “consider that you also do many things wrong, and that you are a man like others; and even if you do abstain from certain faults, still you have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation, or some such mean motive, you abstain from such faults.”
The whole section 18 of book XI is interesting because it is a list of reminders to oneself of how to react when someone offends you. Here is a good essay on the entire section over at The Immoderate Stoic.
Marcus must have been in the mood for lists, because in the following section he makes himself one of “aberrations of the superior quality” (meaning the ability to make rational decisions). They are: “this thought is not necessary; this tends to destroy social union; this which you are going to say comes not from the real thoughts … the fourth is when you shall reproach yourself for anything.” Together, they make for a nice reminder that Stoics shouldn’t judge anyone, including themselves (Marcus’ slip above about the Christians notwithstanding…), that they should focus on what matters, and that what matters is a harmonious social life.
A favorite passages of mine comes at #27, and is the source for one of Modern Stoicism’s accepted meditations (even though the Stoics themselves actually adopted it from the Pythagoreans, according to Marcus and other sources): “The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies that continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star.” “There is no veil over a star,” who said Marcus couldn’t be poetic? At any rate, this is in fact something that I practice from time to time, and which I do find one of the most calming of contemplations.