We continue our series on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. For this installment, I use A.S.L. Farquharson’s text (Oxford, 1944) rather than the Loeb due to some textual problems.
Text and Translation
2.2. Ὅ τί ποτε τοῦτό εἰμι, σαρκία ἐστὶ καὶ πνευμάτιον καὶ τὸ ἡγεμονικόν. τῶν μὲν σαρκίων καταφρόνησον· λύθρος καὶ ὀστάρια καὶ κροκύφαντος, ἐκ νεύρων, φλεβίων, ἀρτηριῶν πλεγμάτιον. θέασαι δὲ καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα ὁποῖόν τί ἐστιν· ἄνεμος, οὐδὲ ἀεὶ τὸ αὐτό, ἀλλὰ πάσης ὥρας ἐξεμούμενον καὶ πάλιν ῥοφούμενον. τρίτον οὖν ἐστι τὸ ἡγεμονικόν. ἄφες τὰ βιβλία· μηκέτι σπῶ· οὐ δέδοται. ἀλλ’ ὡς ἤδη ἀποθνῄσκων ὧδε ἐπινοήθητι· γέρων εἶ· μηκέτι τοῦτο ἐάσῃς δουλεῦσαι, μηκέτι καθ’ ὁρμὴν ἀκοινώνητον νευροσπαστηθῆναι, μηκέτι τὸ εἱμαρμένον ἢ παρὸν δυσχερᾶναι ἢ μέλλον ὑπιδέσθαι.
2.2. Whatever this is that I am is some little bits of flesh and a little breath and the ruling principle. On the one hand, despise the little bits of flesh–gore and little bones and a web, a little wickerworkesque weaving of nerves, little vessels, arteries. And contemplate the breath, too, what sort of a thing it is: a wind, not always the same, but all the time being vomited out and again gulped down. The ruling principle, then, is third. Go away, books! Let me no longer be distracted by you as if I were your servant; it hasn’t been granted. But instead think as one who who is already dying. You are an old man; no longer let it to be enslaved, no longer let it to be the puppet of antisocial impulse, no longer let it be vexed at what is fated or what is present nor be fearful of what is to come.
In the second entry of Book 2, Marcus reflects on what we are made of. He finds three things: flesh; breath (or life, or spirit); and “the ruling principle,” i.e. reason.
Marcus’s tone as he describes the first two is almost embittered–it is certainly dismissive, if not derisive. Note all the diminutives he uses to describe the body: σαρκία (“little bits of flesh”); πνευμάτιον (“little breath”); σαρκίων (“little bits of flesh,” again); ὀστάρια (“little bones”); φλεβίων (“little vessels”); πλεγμάτιον (“little wickerworkesque weaving”). ἀρτηριῶν (“arteries”) is not a diminutive, but, sandwiched between two diminutives with the same or similar endings (φλεβίων and πλεγμάτιον), it sounds like one.
Things do not get much better when we come to man’s “breath” or “life,” though the technique is different. Rather than express scorn through word-forms, as he does with the body, he expresses scorn through graphic word-pictures that express breath in the grotesque terms of the ebb and flow of the bodily processes of a glutton. Breath, being merely “a wind,” is insubstantial and always changing. Gourmand man, for his part, vomits it out and gulps it down again, like an unrestrained Roman aristocrat feasting on a banquet of air.
About reason, the third, Marcus does not have much to say at present. Reason is customarily thought of as that which connects us to the divine, superior in every way to our bodies. (As an aside, this may seem like an odd thing to say, since Stoics are materialists–so isn’t mind a “body,” too? Yes, and so is God. But for the Stoic there are different kinds of matter; and the rarefied, fiery matter of the soul and of God is far surpasses the crass matter of our bodies.)
It is this that Marcus calls in 2.1 our “mind and portion of deity,” though he does not say anything about that here. Instead, he lashes out at his books, telling them to “go away,” in a way similar to what the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes 12:12: “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (KJV).
He says this to himself as one “who is already dying,” a remark that Marcus follows by telling us he is old. The thought seems to be that the time for study for its own sake is past. The hour is late. The reason must be free to prepare for (and to accept) the dissolution of life.
To do so, it cannot be in bondage to anything: it must not be enslaved to books, it must not be enslaved to base and inhumane appetites, it must not be enslaved–and this is perhaps the most poignant remark–to time. All of these are the trappings of this world. Marcus seems to counsel his aged self to be weaned from all these hooks of discursivity, of diachronicity, of Hericlitean flux. Books represent the discursivity of reason; “antisocial impulse” represents the discursivity of irrational passion, flaring up and dying down, only to flare up again; the present and the future represent the discursivity of time, flowing relentlessly and impersonally forward.
All of these are contrary to the stillness, to the repose, of eternity. By askesis, by practice, Marcus must therefore train himself to be free of them. Only so can he be ready for the end. It is for this reason that Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedo that philosophy is practice for dying and being dead.