Marcus Aurelius: Reason & the mind

Marcus Aurelius on reason and the mind: “It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately” (8.47). 

Flagstaff, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

You are what you think

“All is as thinking makes it so” – Monimus the Cynic (2.15). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22).

Respect your ability to control your thoughts – it’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions (3.9). The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).

Disciplining your mind

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else — not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Remove your judgement of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you has a problem then it can form that judgement for itself (8.40).

It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them — and this you can erase immediately. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? “But there are insurmountable obstacles.” Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you (8.47).

Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16). The cucumber is bitter? Throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Go around them. That’s all you need to know, nothing more. Don’t demand to know why such things exist (8.50).

Reason has no obstacles outside of yourself

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal (8.35).

Mind and reason have the power, by their nature and their will, to move through every obstacle. Remember the easy capacity for reason to carry through all things, and stop looking for anything more (10.33).

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, accommodates itself to what it faces, to what is possible. It pursues its aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in its spell (6.13).

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).

Reason is aligned with nature

To a rational being, an action that conflicts with reason is unnatural (7.11). The right path for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or obscure impressions, to direct its impulses toward social action, and to direct its desires and aversions only to things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it (8.7).

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).

To erase false perceptions, tell yourself: I have it in me to keep my soul from evil, lust and all confusion. To see things as they are and treat them as they deserve. Don’t overlook this innate ability (8.29).

All is in order whenever something can be done in accordance with reason, which is shared by gods and men. There’s the possibility of benefit when things move in step with nature, so there’s nothing to fear (7.53).

Reason & our shared humanity

All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are. Care nothing for their praise if they can’t even meet their own standards (3.4). Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say (5.3).

If thought is something we share, then so is reason — what makes us reasoning beings. If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not to do is also shared. And if so, we share a common law and thus are fellow citizens — fellow citizens of something. In that case, our state must be the world. What other entity could all of humanity belong to (4.4).

What is rational in different beings is related like the individual limbs of a single being, and meant to function as a unit.This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb of a larger rational body (7.13).

Reason is like sunlight

The sun’s light extends extends in a straight line, striking any object that stands in its way, but not the space beyond it. It stays there without vanishing or falling away. That’s what the universal mind is like — not an exhaustible stream but a constant radiation. There’s nothing forceful or violent about its impact, nor does it fall away. Rather, it illuminates whatever receives it. Anything unreflective will deprive itself of that light (8.57).

Reason and spiritual growth

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare — as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

Just as those who try block your progress along the straight path of reason can’t keep you from doing what’s right, so too you must not lose your good will toward them (11.9).

The rational soul

The rational soul is capable of self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. It reaps its own harvest and reaches its intended goal no matter where the limit of its life is set. It delves into the endlessness of time to extend its grasp and comprehension of the periodic births and rebirths that the world goes through (11.1).

The rational soul knows that those who come after us will see nothing different, that those who came before us saw no more than we do. It has affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, and humility. It doesn’t place anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. There’s difference between the logos of rationality and that of justice (11.1).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations on justice & providence

Marcus Aurelius claimed that everything that happens is just (4.10). This is so because divine providence determines everything (4.26). But his view is irrational because if everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Yet, if justice – the basis of all Stoic virtue (11.10) – is moot then Stoic virtue also is moot. Ancient Epicureans criticized Stoicism along similar lines.

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Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

All is just

“Everything that happens is right.” Look closely and you’ll see it’s true. Not just right overall, but just – as if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely and embody it in your actions. Goodness defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do (4.10).

Just as you hear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him,” say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. Here “prescribed” means something like “ordered to further his recovery.” What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny, for there is a single harmony (5.8, see also 10.5).

What we experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

There are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all. The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of wellbeing in what directs the world — of its wellbeing, its fulfillment, of its very existence even (5.8).

The whole is damaged if you cut away anything from its continuity and its coherence — anything at all. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying (5.8).

I am a part of a world controlled by nature. And I have a relationship with other, similar parts. With that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6).

Justice is the number one virtue

Nature is never inferior to art. Art imitates nature, not the reverse. In which case, universal nature itself cannot fall short of any artistic invention. Now, all the arts create the lower in the interests of the higher. Won’t universal nature do the same? This is the origin of justice, which is the source of all the other virtues. But how could we do what justice requires if we are distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To the best of my judgment, when I look at the human character I see no virtue that counters justice. But I see a virtue to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. And for the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence — respect for the divine — no less than to act justly. That too is kind of fellowship, and a prerequisite for justice (11.20).

Be sure your actions are not arbitrary or different from what justice would do (12.24). Justice – speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should — and as other people deserve. Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own misperceptions, what people will say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (12.1).

Injustice is blasphemy

Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm one another, as they deserve. To transgress its will, then, is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. (9.1).

Be indifferent to external events, and commit to justice in your own acts. This means thought and action resulting in the common good – what you were born to do (9.31).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else – not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

Do your best to convince others. But act on your own if justice requires it. If met with force then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues. Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances – you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished (6.50).

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, and to approach this thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54).

You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action – and be satisfied if each one achieves its goal (as far as it can). No one can keep that from happening. “But there are external obstacles.” No obstacle, though, to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense (8.32).

Providence

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What’s surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, “I have a purpose,” and the other gods as well. And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning (8.19).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

External events happen randomly or by design. You can’t complain about chance. You can’t argue with providence (12.24). And nature is indifferent to some things. That is, they happen impartially through cause and effect following from the ancient decree of providence. From this starting point it embarked on creation as we know it – laying down the principles of what was to come, and determining the forces of existence, change, and their successive stages (9.1).

Everything you’re trying to reach — by taking the long way round — you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice (12.1).

Don’t be disturbed. Don’t overcomplicate things. Someone has done wrong – but to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present — thoughtfully, justly, with unrestrained moderation (4.26).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius and the gods

Stoicism is usually described as pantheistic. But Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics also refer to the gods, which sounds polytheistic. Modern Stoicism is more agnostic.

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

God & Providence

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth (7.9).

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

An individual’s mind is God and of God (12.26).

Trusting the gods

Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life — no one’s master and no one’s slave (4.31). Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin you into whatever she pleases (4.34).

Everywhere and at all times it’s up to you to honor God in contentment with your present circumstances: you have the option to accept each event with humility, to treat each person as he should be treated, to approach each thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54, see also 12.11).

Of gods and men

The gods live forever and yet they don’t seem annoyed at having to put up with human beings and their behavior throughout eternity. And not only put up with but actively care for them. And you {Marcus is writing about himself} — on the verge of death — you still refuse to care for them, although you’re one of them yourself (7.70).

The gods are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose or by accident. Nor men either. They don’t do it on purpose. No one is to blame (12.12).

Do gods exist?

People ask, “Have you ever seen the gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?” Answers: Just look around you. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it. That’s how I know the gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over (12.28).

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear, or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us (9.40).

If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. (It’s hard to picture a god who makes bad ones.) And why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them — or the world, which is their primary concern? And if they haven’t made decisions about me as an individual, they certainly have about the general welfare. And anything that follows from that is something I have to welcome and embrace.

And if they make no decisions, about anything (and it’s blasphemous even to think so because if so then let’s stop sacrificing, praying, swearing oaths, and doing all the other things we do, believing the whole time that the gods are right here with us) — if they decide nothing about our lives, I can still make decisions. I can still consider what it’s to my benefit to do. And what benefits anyone is to do what his own nature requires. And mine is rational. Rational and civic (6.44).

The gods and death

How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished (12.5).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Nature, the Universe & the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius believed in an interconnected universe where everything is just and happens according to divine will – even if that means you’re oppressed.

Modern science has not vindicated the ancient Stoic view of nature. Their rivals – the Epicureans – believed that nature is atomistic, impersonal, and that divine providence doesn’t exist. 

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Pantheism

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together (4.40).

The natural can never be inferior to the artificial. Art imitates nature, not the reverse (11.10).

Interconnection

Keep reminding yourself how things are connected. All things are related one another and in sympathy with each other (6.38).

There is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes (5.8).

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos (7.9).

Each of us needs what nature gives us, when nature gives it (10.20). Whatever happens to you is for the good of the world. That should be enough right there. But if you look closely you’ll generally notice something else as well: whatever happens to a single person is for the good of others (6.45).

To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early (4.23).

To nature: What the turn of your seasons brings me falls like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you, return to you (4.23).

Nature is personal

The soul of the universe is kind and social. It has made the inferior orders for the sake of the superior; and has suited the superior beings for each other. You see how it has subordinated, coordinated, and distributed to each according to its merit, and brought nobler beings together into a mutual agreement and unanimity (5.30, see also 7.55).

For a rational being, to act in accordance with nature is to act in accordance with reason (7.11). All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human (3.4).

To lie is to blaspheme against nature because nature is synonymous with truth (9.1). What injures the hive injures the bee (6.54).

Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead where nature is leading (7.55). Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything happens by necessity

Nature is passive and malleable. And the logos that governs it has no reason to do evil. It knows no evil, does none, and causes harm to nothing. It dictates all beginnings and all endings (6.1).

Nature brings about everything (6.9). Nature willed the creation of the world. We must agree that everything – even the worst we see – happens as a necessary consequence or connection with those excellent things primarily intended (7.75). Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once and for all — and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?) (9.28).

Through nature all things happen as they should. That things happen for the worst and always will, that the gods have no power to regulate them, and the world is condemned to never-ending evil—how can you say that? (9.35, see also 10.6)

No one can keep you from living as your nature requires. Nothing can happen to you that is not required by Nature (6.58). What humans experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

Reason, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces — to what is possible. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Nature is constant change

The whole is composed of individual parts whose destruction, or transformation, is inevitable. How can the whole run smoothly if this is harmful to the parts? Is nature oblivious? Neither seems very plausible (10.7).

All things are little, changeable, and presently to vanish. All things proceed from the universal governing mind, either by direct and primary intention, or by necessary consequence and connection with things primarily intended. Thus, the horrid jaws of the lion, poisons, and whatever is pernicious (as thorns or mire) are the consequences of those venerable and lovely things you admire. So don’t think they’re foreign to nature, which you revere, but rather the fountain of all things (6.36).

The universe is preserved by the changes of the elements, by the changes of the complex forms. Let these thoughts suffice; let them be your maxims, laying aside that thirst after multitudes of books; that you may die without repining, meek and well satisfied, and sincerely grateful to the gods (2.3b).

Even the incidental effects of the processes of nature have their own charm and attraction. For anyone who has a deep affection of soul, and insight into the workings of the whole, scarcely anything connected with nature will fail to recommend itself agreeably to him (3.2).

All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. Constantly observe everything that comes from change. The nature of the whole loves nothing so much as to change what exists and makes new things from it (4.36).

You have arisen as a part in the universe, you shall disappear again, returning to your source – or rather, by a change shall be resumed again, into that productive intelligence from you came from (4.14). Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature (9.3).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly (7.23). The world is continually renewed (7.25). To decompose is to be recomposed. That’s what nature does (9.35).

Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, “Give and take as you please” – not out of defiance, but out of obedience and goodwill (10.14).

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare – as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

The big picture

Think of the whole of existence, of which you’re the tiniest part; how brief and fleeting your appointed time is; and how small a role you play in universal fate (5.24). By contemplating this you can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there — and clear out space for yourself (9.32, see also 12.32).

Remember these things always: what the nature of the universe is, what your nature is, and how this is related to the universe; what sort of part you are, what sort of whole (2.9), and the governor of the universe from whom you flowed as a small stream from a great fountain (2.4). And that no man can hinder you from acting and speaking in agreement with the whole, of which you are a part (2.9).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius & Meditations: A 300 word summary

Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a brilliant read, but not an easy one. Marcus called it To Himself.

It’s a journal, not a polished book. He jumps from topic to topic, then back to the same topic, with many repetitions.

What are the major themes? In future posts I’ll go into detail. For now I’ll say that I think of the topics in Meditations as being like a bicycle wheel.

The wheel is the universe – the whole, as it were. Nature is the hub of the wheel – nature as in the essential qualities or innate disposition of things. The relation of parts to the whole is a key theme.

Extending from the hub are various spokes, and reason is the second most important. Reason is the nature, or essential quality, of human beings. No other animal is capable of reason, and with reason we need not be slaves to our passions and can focus on the greater good.

Virtue, then, is the most important spoke because reason is a means to virtue.

Impermanence is also an important spoke. Understanding that our time on earth is but a second compared to all of existence can help us realize how trivial most of our concerns are.

Getting bogged down with petty concerns and failing to put things into perspective is a sure way to act destructively under the pretense of doing good. People who act destructively usually do so from ignorance – from their lack of perspective – rather than from malice.

Finally, death is related to impermanence. And Marcus reflects often on death. Maybe because he knew his time was growing short. But also because it helped him remember that none of his petty concerns would matter for long.

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Where do human rights come from?

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Phoenix, Arizona

Are human rights government creations? Or do human rights pre-exist government – being derived from nature – with government tasked with protecting those rights?

These are important questions because the answers weigh heavily on what rights we have and whether they can legitimately be taken away.

If we have free speech only because the government says we do then we don’t really have the right to free speech because the government can just as easily take this right away.

On the other hand, if human rights are natural rights then the government cannot legitimately deprive us of these rights. But what’s the basis for saying human rights arise from nature?

The Good

These questions have come to the forefront because the perspective of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch gives us clues about how he might rule on various issues.

Reason.com says the debate centers on the question, “What is the good?” One position is that life is inherently good. Another is that human flourishing is the primary good, and human rights are necessary for this flourishing – what Thomas Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness,” or what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia (which is often translated as happiness even though that doesn’t fully capture it).

This matters, Reason goes on to say, because if life is inherently good with no further explanation needed then abortion and assisted suicide are not rights. But if human flourishing is the good, and life is in service to this flourishing, then a woman’s flourishing gives her the right to choose.

Stoicism and human rights

What would ancient Stoic philosophers think of this debate? That’s hard to say. Eudaimonia is important in Stoicism. But eudaimonia cannot be achieved unless we live virtuous lives. So for Stoics, virtue is more important than happiness.

Natural rights wasn’t a concept in the ancient world, however. Had it been, ancient Stoics might have connected natural rights to justice, which they saw as part of Nature. Perhaps they even would have claimed Logos as the source – the providential universal reason that orders all things.

I wrote earlier that this idea of Logos isn’t as popular with Stoics today because modern science makes it hard to justify. Instead, I suggested that the elusive “theory of everything” – the underlying principle of the universe from which every other scientific principle follows – might be the closest we can come to Logos. But this is not a conscious or providential force – it’s an impersonal force of nature.

So a modern Stoic who rejects the ancient view of Logos can’t argue that natural rights exist as an objective scientific principle.

What I’m left with is my opinion that human rights pre-exist government because every person must have rights in order for human flourishing to be possible. While my position lacks an objective, scientifically provable standard, I argue that the same is true for those who disagree with me.

Did Buddhism influence Stoicism?

Both teach nonattachment, impermanence, and interconnectedness.

Both advise self-control, especially when strong emotions are involved.

Both teach that how we think about things determines how we experience life.

Both say that we create our own suffering by constantly yearning for more while failing to appreciate what we have.

And most of all, both place a strong emphasis on virtuous thoughts and actions.

But there are differences as well. Stoicism focuses on reason rather than mysticism. Concepts like Nirvana and rebirth are absent from Stoicism, as is the Buddhist practice of meditation.

The historical record is scant. I created this crude timeline to show the key interactions between Greek and Buddhist cultures:

buddhism-stoicism-timeline

 

 

 

You’ll notice that there is no known interactions between Buddhists and Stoics in ancient times. Stoicism grew out of Cynicism, however, and Cynic philosopher Onesicritus did interact with Indian ascetics after Alexander the Great reached the Indus River. We don’t know if these Indian ascetics were Buddhist, though they could have been. Besides, Cynicism had independently developed asceticism and non-attachment prior to contact with the East.

After Alexander’s empire split into smaller empires, Indo-Greek King Menander I became a Buddhist. And through trade routes it’s possible that some Buddhist ideas made their way back to Greece. And Caesar Augustus is known to have met with a Buddhist Indian king. A century and a half later the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius emphasized impermanence and interconnectedness.

But this is all circumstantial. It’s possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes. But if so, it’s unlikely that Stoic philosophers knew the Buddhist origin of these influences.