Five Violations of Your Own Soul: Marcus Aurelius

The soul of man violates itself, especially so when it becomes, as far it is able, an abscess and like a growth on the universe. For feeling dislike for anything which happens is an apostasy from Nature, in a part of which the natures of each of the remaining parts are involved. And secondly, whenever the soul turns away from some man, or even does things contrary to him, on the grounds of harming him, such as are the souls of those who are enraged. Thirdly when one is bested by either pleasure or toil. Fourthly, whenever it plays a part, and is false or dissembling in either doing or saying something. Fifth, when it casts its own act or desire at no goal, but vainly and inconsequently spends energy on anything whatsoever, although it is necessary for the smallest things to occur with an eye to the end in view. And the end of logical animals is in following the reason and law of the city and government which is oldest.1 (Meditations II:16)

This section comes near the end of Book 2 of the Meditations, which is the first “philosophical” book of the work, Book 1 consisting of thanks for those qualities of character which Marcus Aurelius has accrued from various people at different times in his life. This work, for those unaccustomed, is the product of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome for about twenty years beginning in 161 AD. Although Roman, of course, he wrote in Greek during encampment between various military campaigns against the barbarians. A Stoic, his work consistently shows the mark of that philosophy, although he is a writer who has been frequently accused of inconsistency to those principles.

Immediately before this section, Marcus has chastised those who pay more attention to the affairs of others or “things underneath the earth,” the later phrase perhaps a disparaging dismissal of metaphysical speculation, or alternatively, a way to categorize all non-moral philosophical reflection. One properly devotes time to the divinity within, a euphemism for the real self, and perhaps reflective of the highly intellectualized view which Stoics prescribed for human beings.

There are five ways in which the soul violates itself (Ὑβρίζει ἑαυτὴν ἡ ψυχὴ). The first way must be understood in the context of the great Stoic imperative: Live in accordance with nature. Note that Marcus, when he reproves a disposition equivalent to becoming a tumor on the universe, qualifies his statement when he says, “as far as it is able.” This qualification owes to the fact that Stoics are strict determinists, and the universe will get its (good) way no matter how any single recalcitrant person might attempt to subvert it. Thus Marcus might be delimiting the sphere of attempted deviance not to action but to thought. The next sentence bears this interpretation out, “For feeling dislike for anything which happens is an apostasy from nature…” The mind can revolt, at least as a theoretically inert action, but no real actions can overthrow the plan of Nature. The metaphor involved in this violation is illuminating. Indeed what could be more unnatural to a body than a tumor, thus what could be more unnatural to a universe than one attempting to subvert it in some way.

The second self-violation of the soul is to “turn away” from some other human. This phrasing must mean to “not help.” Instead of helping one’s fellow man, by “coming to” them, such a person “turns from” them. We must take such a reading in order to harmonize it with the example given, an enraged person. Although in Marcus’ language an enraged person is metaphorically “turning from” the person at whom they are angry, they are literally “turning to” him, as any recent object of rage could testify. The third admonition is self-explanatory, to never be taken in by pleasure or toil (πόνος could also be translated as pain). This is not the same as having pleasure or pain, but rather the dominant role that those two emotions could have in the daily life of a person.

Fourthly, the soul commits a wrong when it literally plays the hypocrite, doing or saying something under some pretense. It is unclear from the brief description given, but it is possible that the meaning includes any lying whatsoever. Lying would be untrue to oneself as it involves the betrayal of oneself as a rational being who is designed to think the truth. This understanding of the fourth command transitions well into the fifth.

The fifth way that a soul can cause violence to itself is in doing something with no end in mind. This is equivalent to existing as a mere creature alone, breathing and waking merely to breathe and wake in turn. This can also extend to any and all actions taken without an explicit understanding of its purpose or goal. Presumably even reading the Meditations could be done in a vicious manner if one were not to read it with the intention of self-improvement or some other focused design. Marcus closes his advice with, “the end of logical animals is in following the reason and law of the city and government which is oldest.” As in most Stoic writings, the doctrine of conformity with the universe is always lurking somewhere when the topic of right action is discussed. Man must act in accordance with his actual self, that is, as a rational being, but he must also live in accordance with the actual universe, a realm intelligently designed for among other things, rational beings. It is to this oldest “city and government” that the rational being must conform his actions and thoughts.

1 Ὑβρίζει ἑαυτὴν ἡ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ψυχὴ μάλιστα μέν, ὅταν ἀπόστημα καὶ οἷον φῦμα τοῦ κόσμου, ὅσον ἐφ̓ ἑαυτῇ, γένηται: τὸ γὰρ δυσχεραίνειν τινὶ τῶν γινομένων ἀπόστασίς ἐστι τῆς φύσεως, ἧς ἐν μέρει αἱ ἑκάστου τῶν λοιπῶν φύσεις περιέχονται. ἔπειτα δέ, ὅταν ἄνθρωπόν τινα ἀποστραφῇ ἢ καὶ ἐναντία φέρηται ὡς βλάψουσα, οἷαί εἰσιν αἱ τῶν ὀργιζομένων. τρίτον ὑβρίζει ἑαυτήν, ὅταν ἡσσᾶται ἡδονῆς ἢ πόνου. τέταρτον, ὅταν ὑποκρίνηται καὶ ἐπιπλάστως καὶ ἀναλήθως τι ποιῇ ἢ λέγῃ. πέμπτον, ὅταν πρᾶξίν τινα ἑαυτῆς καὶ ὁρμὴν ἐπ̓ οὐδένα σκοπὸν ἀφιῇ, ἀλλ̓ εἰκῇ καὶ ἀπαρακολουθήτως ὁτιοῦν ἐνεργῇ, δέον καὶ τὰ μικρότατα κατὰ τὴν ἐπὶ τὸ τέλος ἀναφορὰν γίνεσθαι: τέλος δὲ λογικῶν ζῴων τὸ ἕπεσθαι τῷ τῆς πόλεως καὶ πολιτείας τῆς πρεσβυτάτης λόγῳ καὶ θεσμῷ.

Aristotle’s Essence: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι is an odd phrase, common to Aristotelian diction, used when the philosopher wishes to speak about the essence of a particular thing. Most students translate the phrase as “essence” by rote, because they have not the faintest conception on how to penetrate the meaning of this four-word hieroglyphic.

Let us begin by discussing what this construction consists of at its most basic level. Fundamentally the phrase is an articular infinitive. Dr. Smyth tells us that, “The articular infinitive, while having the character of a substantive, retains the functions of a verb” (See Smyth, 2025 and following). The “character” of a substantive means that we are able to decline the infinitive as a neuter singular noun, if we place the appropriately declined definite article (τό, τοῦ, τῷ, τό) in front of it. Thus, τὸ ποιεῖν can be translated not merely as “to make,” but also as “making.” With this in mind, τὸ εἶναι, is “to be” or “being,” often simplified by most translators to “essence.”

This leaves us with the two inner terms, τί ἦν. First let us look at the imperfect ἦν. In Smyth 1901-1902 we are told that the imperfect can be used for the present tense. Liddell and Scott (εἰμί F. bottom of entry) inform us that ἦν is sometimes used as the present, corroborating the account given by Smyth. Liddell and Scott also make mention of Aristotle’s exact phrase, remarking that, “τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι expresses the essential nature of a thing.” Thus the ἦν is actually an ἐστί, at least for translation purposes.

The LSJ entry is further helpful in determining the meaning of τί ἦν as a two-word phrase. It points out that τί ἦν, in the phrase τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, takes the place of a very similar articular infinitive, but with a dative phrase, such as τὸ ἀγαθῷ εἶναι, which can be seen in Prior Analytics 67b12 and De Anima 429b10. τί ἦν is therefore really (τῷ) τί ἦν. τί, of course, is the interrogative pronoun, “what.” The phrase τί ἦν means, “what is it?” or as an indirect interrogative, which it could also be, “what it is.”

Putting it all together in a different order we have, τὸ εἶναι “being,” (τῷ) τί ἦν “for what is it?” or as an indirect interrogative, “for what it is.” Very often when there is a dative with a verb like εἰμί, it is construed as a dative of possession, which can be translated as a genitive. We could translate τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι as, “The essence/being of what it is.” The mystery of the phrase is solved. We are nevertheless saddled with an uncharacteristically unwieldy phrase to describe a common Greek philosophical term.

Perception Between Sleep & Waking

First of all, this is obvious, that waking and sleep belong to the same part of the animal. For they are opposites and sleep appears to be a kind of privation of sleep. For opposites always, both in natural cases and otherwise, happen in the same receptive part, and are affections of the same thing. I mean, for example, health and sickness, beauty and homeliness, strength and weakness, seeing and blindness, and hearing and deafness. And yet also it is obvious from these. For by whatever means we distinguish an awake man, by this same means we distinguish a sleeping man. For we consider a a man who is perceiving to be awake, and every one who is awake either perceives something outside himself or motions in himself. If therefore, waking is in nothing other than perceiving, it is obvious that by the same means there is perception, by this same means both waking things are awake and sleeping things sleep. On Sleep and Waking 453b25-454a7

On Sleep and Waking is a small treatise by Aristotle. The starting point of the philosopher’s inquiry is, as good Aristotelian precedent would often tell us, to begin with what is obvious. Waking and sleep are opposites, because sleep is a lack of waking. Presumably, waking could also be described as a lack of sleep, as every insomniac well knows. In general, that is, in every case, opposites occur in the same faculty, with Aristotle providing examples of health and sickness (the faculty of the body) and hearing and deafness (the faculty of the ear). Since we already know that sleeping and waking are opposites, we have merely to determine in which faculty or place they share their common origin. The perceptive ability is this shared “location” when it comes to waking and sleeping. Waking then, is the use or disuse of the perceptive faculty. We will have to wait, when it comes to defining dreams (in his On Dreams), how Aristotle is able to come up with a definition which avoids overlap between the meaning of waking which I just gave, and dreaming.