Marcus Aurelius and the soul

Ancient Stoic belief saw human beings as having a spark of the divine. Today that’s often seen as a metaphor for the human capacity for reason.

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Soul as a spark of the divine

“To live with the gods.” To do that is to show them that your soul accepts what it is given and does what that divinity requires — the fragment of himself Zeus gave each of us to lead and guide us, which is our mind, our logos (5.27).

A privilege God has granted to no other part of no other — He’s allowed us not to be broken off in the first place, and when we are he’s allowed us to return, to graft ourselves back on, and take up our old position once again as part of a whole (8.34).

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful — more free of interruptions — than your own soul (4.3).

Care of the soul

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).

What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s? A tyrant’s soul? The souof a predator—or its prey? (5.11)

To my soul: Are you ever going to achieve goodness? Ever going to be simple, whole, and naked—as plain to see as the body that contains you? Know what an affectionate and loving disposition would feel like? Ever be fulfilled, ever stop desiring — lusting and longing for people and things to enjoy? Or for more time to enjoy them? Or for some other place or country — “a more temperate clime”? Or for people easier to get along with? And instead be satisfied with what you have, and accept the present—all of it. And convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods, that things are good and always will be, whatever they decide and have in store for the preservation of that perfect entity — good and just and beautiful, creating all things, connecting and embracing them,and gathering in their separated fragments to create more like them. Will you ever take your stand as a fellow citizen with gods and human beings, blaming no one, deserving no one’s censure? (10.1)

Equilibrium & abscess

The soul as a sphere in equilibrium: Not grasping at things beyond it or retreating inward. Not fragmenting outward, not sinking back on itself, but ablaze with light and looking at the truth, without and within (11.12).

The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world:

  • To be disgruntled at anything that happens is a revolt against nature (the nature of all things).
  • When it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.
  • When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.
  • When it puts on a mask and does or says something artificial or false.
  • When it allows its action and impulse to be without purpose, to be random and disconnected. Even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal. But the goal of rational beings is to follow the rule and law of the most ancient of communities and states (2.16).

Mind & soul

Things have no hold on the soul. They have no access to it, cannot move or direct it. It is moved and directed by itself alone. It takes the things before it and interprets them as it sees fit (5.19).

The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh—gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments, calling it “good” or “bad” (5.26)

Body & Soul

Body, soul, mind: Sensations: the body. Desires: the soul. Reasoning: the mind. Make your mind your guide to what seems best. Even people who deny the gods do that. Even people who betray their country. Welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to stain or disturb the spirit within him with a mess of false beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by calmly obeying God — saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if the others don’t acknowledge it — this life lived with simplicity, humility, cheerfulness — he doesn’t resent them for it, and isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads: to the end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be (3.16).

Three relationships: with the body you inhabit, with the divine (the cause of everything in all things), and with the people around you (8.27).

God sees all our souls freed from their fleshly containers,stripped clean of their bark, cleansed of their grime. He grasps with his intelligence alone what was poured and channeled from himself into them. If you learn to do the same, you can avoid a great deal of distress. When you see through the flesh that covers you, will you be unsettled by clothing, mansions, celebrity, the painted sets, the costume cupboard? (12.2)

Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them (8.28).

Disgraceful: for the soul to give up when the body is still going strong (6.29).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

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.

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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 open to non-theistic and theistic perspectives.

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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).

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).

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

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

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.