Professor Anthony A. Long on “Marcus Aurelius and the Self”
Institute of Classics, London U.K., 2012
At the Institute of Classics in 2012, Professor A.A. Long delivered a philosophical paper titled “Marcus Aurelius and the Self” — now published in A Companion to Marcus Aurelius edited by Marcel van Ackeren. In the paper he presented, Professor Long argued that Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, although firmly “grounded in the study and practice of stoicism”, went “far beyond these acknowledged antecedents” in its reflections on the “self”. Professor Long explains that the exultation we find in the Meditations to sever from the self the “spatial-temporal” in pursuing stoic ethical development articulates a conception of the “self” that is “autonomous”– the “center point of refuge in an outer context” that is embodied in a world beyond our control. His paper seeks to explore this expression of this embodied “selfhood” in the Meditations and the way that it integrates both conflicting outer determinism and its inner subjective autonomy in its attempts to live an appropriate life according to Stoic principles.
“You are composed of three things — mere body, mere breath, and intellect. Two of these are yours to the extent of your needing to take care of them, but the third alone is strictly yours. So if you separate from yourself, that is from your mind, everything other people say or do, or whatever you yourself have said or done, and whatever in the future troubles you, all that accrues to you involuntarily (aproaireta) from your bodily envelope or associated life-breath, and everything the external flux whirls around, so that your reflective mind, freed from its fated accompaniments (synheimarmena) lives purified and released by itself, doing what is right, accepting what occurs and speaking the truth — if, I say, you separate from this ruling part (hegemonikon) your emotional attachments (prospatheia) and the events from the past or the future, and practice living the life that you are living, that is the present, you will be able to live out the rest to your death untroubled and kindly and in harmony with your own divinity”. (XII:III)
Professor Long ultimately contends that while the exultation to sever our “governing self” from “everything else” may seem an instance of “self-cancellation”, however doing what is right, accepting what occurs and speaking the truth are key precepts in the Stoic writing of Epictetus, in particular what is called the “divine law” as “guarding one’s own”, “using only what one is given”, “not getting emotionally involved” with “companions, places, or even one’s own body”. The Epictetean precept however “deflates” the distinctiveness” of the language in the Meditations. Marcus not only seeks to “purge” his identity with what he calls his “internal divinity” or his “daimon“, but also from the “internal elements” like the passions (phantasia, horme, orexis; IX:XII). For Marcus, our internal right emotive even in accepting what occurs and speaking the truth “always carries the risk of acting precipitately, assenting to impression without carefully reviewing them, and reacting like a puppet that is jerked about by the strings of its manipulator”. In seeking to purge his self from the outer and inner “normal processes”, the imperative is to contract introspectively to find the capacity and space for “rational reflection”, which like the Stoics, Marcus also sees as an “offshoot of the divinely governed cosmos”.
The Stoic precepts that i) what is happening now is what has and will continue to happen, ii) human beings share community “not physiologically but mentally”, iii) our life, children, our soul are the products of nature; iv) life is what we “judge it to be”, and finally v) the moment is what anyone “ever lives and loses”, Professor Long argues, are conducive to “complementary perspectives on the self”.
The first perspective, the objective perspective, is that our agency is “reduced” to “brief phases in the life of the universe”. Because of the material that we are made up is recycled, the self is a mere moment “in the cosmic flux, endlessly repeatable and ultimately forgettable”. The second, the subjective perspective, sees the self as self-effecting; “the way things appear to us is how they are for us”; “the world we live in is a world irreducibly mediated by the way we, as individuals, think and by the concepts (true or false) that shape our individual minds”; seems a form of “radical subjectivism”. A third however, argues Professor Long found in the Meditations, is that both are in fact an outer and an inner perspective of a single self. “When Marcus reflects on the course of events, on human history, and on the cycle of life from birth to death, he is inclined to view the self and himself in an externalist and deflationary way”. When he focuses on his own identity, he treats it as if he is the ultimate subject capable of reshaping himself to circumstance and rightness.
In the Meditation, the “nature” of a “rational being” always equips with “autonomy” or “never being subject to the will or power of anything outside himself”. Indeed, “co-substantiality with universal Nature dignifies it hugely, by bestowing on it a share of the world’s reason (the internal daimon) and thus a potentially self-determined mentality”. The person understands him/herself as a “a minute part of fate” “integral” to nature determinative symbiotic structure. “By identifying his self with his internal daimon, Marcus integrates his subjective identity with his objective participation in Nature’s causal chain”. Our reflective awareness of our own place in Nature gives us not only an understanding of our Nature but “subjective autonomy”.
“If you think, as [Marcus] does, that the possession of reason unites all human beings into a community of selves who are partnered by the omnipresent God or Nature, […] to be the rational agent that you are, […] requires your cosmopolitan community participation”.