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Friday, September 05, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 12)

There are a couple of primary questions all human beings face in all times and all places: Is there a God? and How should we live? If Marcus can’t help us answer these most fundamental questions then we should question his credentials as a philosopher.

Regarding the existence of God Marcus lays out a very rational analysis of the problem. There are three distinct possibilities: “Either there is (1) a fatal necessity and invincible order, or (2) a kind Providence, or (3) confusion without a purpose and without a director.” In plain English here are the three options. First possibility: there may be a god, but this god is far removed from all human affairs and concerns. For human purposes there may as well not be a god at all. The second possibility: there’s a god who cares deeply about human conditions and therefore cares what happens to each and every one of us. The third possibility is that there is no god and no purpose to the universe, just a stormy confusion. Those are basically the three possibilities. That’s all well and good; the problem has now been thoroughly analyzed. But analyzing a problem doesn’t solve it. I like for a man to state clearly where he stands. Marcus does that. He says “To those who ask, ‘Where have you seen gods, and how can you be so sure of their existence that you worship them?’ I reply: ‘First, they are clearly visible to the eye (i.e. the stars); and second, I’ve never set eyes on my soul, yet I honor it. So it is with the gods: I see their power at work around me every day, and I conclude that they exist, and I worship them.’ You may not agree with him but Marcus tells us very clearly where he stands.

How should we live? Marcus is much more comfortable answering this question. In modern political terminology you can almost hear him say: I have a plan. His plan is basic and not very original: “First, do nothing unintentionally or without some end in mind. Second, make the common good the only end of all your actions.” Almost all philosophers in western civilization tell us we should act with a specific purpose in mind. Acting rationally is a trademark of western philosophy. Advocating rational behavior puts Marcus squarely in the mainstream. Marcus is on a little shakier ground when he advises that the “common good” should direct our actions. Most western philosophers agree. Plato is one who wholeheartedly agrees with Marcus. Almost every page of Plato’s Republic reflects the importance of working toward the good of the whole community. But why is the community more important than our own deeply personal needs? If everyone looks out for the common good what becomes of the humanity found within each individual person? This is the tension between objective impersonal reason and subjective personal opinion. Marcus advises us to “Jettison your cargo of opinion and you are saved.” Personal preferences and communal biases must to be rejected so we can think more clearly. Aristotle agrees with this notion. Dostoyevsky does not. In Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says “human excellence is of two kinds: intellectual and moral.” We can’t have one without the other. Moral improvement can’t take place unless we first develop clear minds free of personal bias. Dostoevsky says just the opposite in The Brothers Karamazov: our intellectual side isn’t nearly as important as our emotional side. It’s not what’s in our heads that counts but what’s in our hearts. To be a better thinker, listen to your mind. But to be a better person, you must listen to your heart. This is Dostoevsky’s message and it’s a real challenge to the views of Marcus.


Blogger SMJ said...

I believe this view of mankind is a false dichotomy. It is false because we are not simply one thing or the other but both. Mind and body. Reason and spirit. What separates man from the rest of nature is not simply his ability to reason, but his capacity for sin and his hope for redemption. Nietzsche once said that man is the only animal that feels remorse. And he was right. No other creature feels the sting of humiliation from his neighbor. If we were all mind, we would be nothing but machines, a kind of biological computer. But if we are consumed by feelings of rage and sorrow, then we become like animals in heat, a slave to our passion and hormonal urges. Neither extreme is proper to the life of man. As Aristotle says, moderation in all things is the key to happiness. Dostoevsky, however, is obsessed with one idea: the problem of evil. He is convinced that the world is irrational and that we humans, as puny mortal beings trapped by endless and conflicting desires, are unable to improve or correct this basic flaw in the design of nature. Thus, man's fate is to be forever at war with himself. Marcus Aurelius, though well aware of man's finite condition, believes that reason can lead us out of the wilderness of our distress. His faith in reason was shared by Plato and Aquinas, neither of whom were so naive as to believe that reason alone could solve all problems. As Leo Strauss pointed out, Plato's Republic, if properly understood, is a treatise on the limits of reason and the fallacy of believing that government can be managed on rational principles alone. Our best hope for a decent life is to think carefully about what needs to be done, act boldly with confidence, then listen carefully for the distant echo of our conscience.

9/09/2008 2:26 PM  

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