The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Meditations 2.3

We continue our series on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. For this installment, I use the Loeb text, correct (as indicated by the square brackets) against that of A.S.L. Farquharson (Oxford, 1944).

Text and Translation

Τὰ τῶν θεῶν προνοίας μεστά, τὰ τῆς τύχης οὐκ ἄνευ φύσεως ἢ συγκλώσεως καὶ ἐπιπλοκῆς τῶν προνοίᾳ διοικουμένων. πάντα ἐκεῖθεν ῥεῖ· πρόσεστι δὲ τὸ ἀναγκαῖον, καὶ τὸ τῷ ὅλῳ κόσμῳ συμφέρον, οὗ μέρος εἶ. παντὶ δὲ φύσεως μέρει ἀγαθόν, ὃ φέρει ἡ τοῦ ὅλου φύσις, καὶ ὃ ἐκείνης ἐστὶ σωστικόν. σώζουσι δὲ κόσμον, ὥσπερ αἱ τῶν στοιχείων, οὕτως καὶ αἱ τῶν συγκριμάτων μεταβολαί. ταῦτά σοι ἀρκείτω, [ἀ]εἰ δόγματά [ἔστω]. τὴν δὲ τῶν βιβλίων δίψαν ῥῖψον, ἵνα μὴ γογγύζων ἀποθάνῃς, ἀλλὰ ἵλεως, ἀληθῶς, καὶ ἀπὸ καρδίας εὐχάριστος τοῖς θεοῖς.

The things of the gods are full of providence,[1]; the things of fortune do not exist apart from nature[2] or interweaving and connection with the things governed by providence. All things flow from there. And the necessary is added to it,[3] as well as what is advantageous to the whole, of which you are a part. And what is good for every part of nature is that which the nature of the whole brings, and that which is able to preserve it. And just as the changes of the elements preserve the cosmos, so too do the changes of compound structures. Let these things be enough for you; let them be your dogmas always. But thrust away the thirst for books, so that you may not die grumbling, but thankful to the gods graciously, truly, and from your heart.

Commentary

In 2.2, Marcus dealt with what we are made of (flesh, breath, and reason). In 2.3, he reflects on how the world is ordered by the gods, and how we fit into it.

We already know that we are somehow connected to the gods (and therefore to their ordering) via our reason, which is a portion of divinity within us. So there is a clue.

The gods, Marcus says, order the world through “providence” or “forethought” (προνοίας). Perhaps our connection to them becomes clearer through this word: it is a connection of a rational or intellectual kind, a “thinking” kind.

But then Marcus introduces a second term, “fortune” (τύχης). Fortune is lower than providence, and is governed by it; and yet it is still an intrinsic part of nature (φύσεως).

Providence and fortune seem to be antonyms: one seems to indicate a rational ordering of things and events, while the other seems to indicate chance. Yet both seem to get at something real about the human experience of the world, despite their apparent contradiction. How do we resolve them, if indeed we can–or should? Marcus does not tell us here. (In my opinion, the best stab at a resolution is that offered by Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy: What is providence in the simultaneity of infinite divine vision manifests as fortune to finite creatures enmeshed in the causal web of time.)[4] He simply asserts that “all things flow” (πάντα ῥεῖ) from these two sources. The statement is redolent of Heraclitus, but the fact that the “flow” has a source (ἐκεῖθεν) means that there is nothing random here, no unintelligible flux sans anchor. Quite the opposite.

There follows an enigmatic statement: “The necessary is added [or attached] to it.” The sense seems to be that the government of providence implies the necessity of events–a claim not at all surprising coming from a Stoic. If that seems to speak of providence-as-absolute, the next clauses gives us a slightly different view, that of providence-in-relation: not only is “the necessary” present, but “the advantageous,” viz., what is “advantageous to the whole.” And since you are a part of the whole, providence works things to your advantage as well.

There are a couple different ways of reading this. One is as trite cold comfort: “It’s all for the best,” people say, often at moments when one can have no earthly idea of how that could possibly be so. For a Christian, though, a link to Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (ESV)) might spring to mind.

Marcus veers more toward the first, I think, which is to say, he’s catechizing himself. “You must believe that all works out for the best, for the preservation (or ‘salvation’) of the whole, even when you cannot see how that can be true.” The Stoic doctrine of divine immanence is implicit here, I believe. The whole, which is the abode of the god within, must be kept safe. For individuals, mileage may vary. One thinks of David Bowie’s lines: “Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes.”

Because he is catechizing himself, it is not coincidence that he says, “Let [these truths] be your dogmas (δόγματά) always.” That raises another question: Practically, is our second option above really so different? That is to say, are we really so different? In our frequent befuddlement, certainly not. We too must catechize ourselves to believe that providence is for our good, particularly when we cannot see “how,” as I put it above, “that could possibly be so.” The big difference-maker will be the belief in a personal and transcendent God–indeed, one who enters into the world of time and suffers for and with us. But that is beyond Marcus’s brief in this passage.

In fact, that observation in concert with what Marcus says in the rest of 2.3 can serve as a synecdoche for the uses of Stoicism for a Christian, for it points up both why the Stoic outlook often rings true, as well as its limitations.

As in 2.2, Marcus immediately turns to a polemic against books, indicating that they often bring discontent and grumbling against the gods, rather than a grateful disposition. The reason here is likely because they would complicate the articles of faith he is striving to believe and make one morose in relation to the divine. For the reader, this can be used as a heuristic for how he reads books and how he lets them affect him–not in order to become functionally illiterate, but to become a wiser and more pious reader.

References

References
1 Or “forethought.”
2 Lit. “[are] not without nature.”
3 Or “is attached to it.”
4 Marcus perhaps has something different in mind, given that he says that “the things of fortune: are interwoven with “the things governed by providence,” as if they are actually two different things.

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