Monday, August 13, 2012

`Just, Self-Controlled, Brave, and Free'

One of Janet Lewis’ finest poems, “Lines with a Gift of Herbs,” begins with wonder at the vagaries of plant biochemistry: How is it that different species growing on the same small plot of earth can produce such varying fragrances? They are “unconfused,” Lewis tells us, though “From the same earth distilled.” In the third stanza, she likens our lives to those of herbs: “Each one distinctly willed,-- / Stoic morality.” Her next stanza is a rhymed paraphrase of a passage from Book 7, Section 15 of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: 

“The Emperor said, `Though all
Conspire to break thy will,
Clear stone, thou emerald, shall
Be ever emerald still.’” 

A Stoic is enjoined to follow his own nature. Here is the full passage as translated from the Greek by Martin Hammond (Penguin Books, 2006): 

“Whatever anyone does or says, I must be a good man. It is as if an emerald, or gold or purple, were always saying: `Whatever anyone does or says, I must be an emerald and keep my own colour.’”

 This is not some adolescence-fueled declaration of rugged individualism. It calls for self-discipline, self-denial and a mature willingness to align one’s self with “nature.” Marcus writes in Book 8, Section 1 of the Meditations: 

“You know from experience that in all your wanderings you have nowhere found the good life—not in logic, not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere. Where then is it to be found? In doing what man’s nature requires. And how is he to do this? By having principles to govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil—the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave, and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these.” 

William James found much practical wisdom in the Meditations, which he first read at age twenty-four during a period of confusion and uncertainty. In a June 1866 letter to his friend Thomas Wren Ward, James writes: 

“[Marcus Aurelius] certainly had an invincible soul; and it seems to me that any man who can, like him, grasp the love of a `life according to nature,’ i.e. a life in which your individual will becomes so harmonized to nature’s will as cheerfully to acquiesce in whatever she assigns to you, knowing that you serve some purpose in her vast machinery wh[ich] will never be revealed to you, any man who can do this, will, I say, be a pleasing spectacle, no matter what his lot in life.”

He may, in other words, as Lewis says in the concluding lines of her poem, have all his “might conserved / In treasure, finally.”

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