You are Always Changing, Death is but Another Change

The time of a human life is a point; its essence flows away, its perception is dim, the assemblage of the whole body is quick to decay, the soul is a roundabout, fortune is hard to interpret, fame is uncertain. To speak to someone who understands, all the things of the body are a river, while all the things of the soul are a dream and a delusion. Life is a war and the dwelling place of a sojourner, posthumous fame is oblivion. What, therefore, is able to be an escort [in life]? The one and only thing is philosophy. And philosophy is this, to preserve the god inside of us to be free of violence and unharmed, to be greater than pleasures and pains, doing nothing vainly or dishonestly or with hypocrisy, not being at a loss to do anything or not do anything. And yet it still accepts the things that come about and are portioned out, since they come from that same place where it came. And in general philosophy is accepting death with a gracious understanding, as nothing other than a dissolution of the elements from which each living creature is composed. And yet if there is nothing terrible in the elements themselves wherein each thing changes continuously into another thing, why would someone mistrust the change and dissolution of everything? For it is in accordance with nature. And there is nothing evil in accordance with nature. 1
Meditations II.17

This is the last chapter of Book 2. Marcus, as he does continuously, is mindful and considerate of his own mortality, pondering fate not as an emotional spur so as to accomplish great deeds, but with an eye toward rationally digesting what personal death means within the scope of nature and the divine order. We would unfairly burden Marcus if we were to require of him a level of clarity which cannot be expected of a work aimed for personal reflection, so instead I approach the Meditations as a work which often needs its thoughts and arguments to be drawn out. This is one such section.

Far from being dour, as the stereotype of a frowning Stoic might allow us to infer, Marcus, although he begins by listing off the shortcomings of our human mortality, is in actuality laying out the case for the radical change we are constantly undergoing in our lives already. Even when a human is living, he is only a point (στιγμή), a thing both definite and small. The soul is often considered by the common person, no doubt because of its perceived persistence, as the element which truly constitutes the self. Yet even the soul, in Marcus’ words, is transient. It is called a ῥόμβος, meaning either a magic wheel or a whirling motion. Clearly motion is the emphasis, so I have translated it as roundabout.

The one constant thing in our lives, if we are fortune enough to have cultivated it, is philosophy. The job of philosophy is to cultivate our inner self to be morally pure and personally disciplined. This undertaking, however, is not to be done outside of or independent of the fated events which are doled out by the universe. In fact, Marcus tells us, philosophy is especially purposeful towards the goal of receiving death, perhaps the most disturbing of our fated events, with a glad heart (ἵλεῳ τῇ γνώμῃ). The gleeful acceptance of our death reflects a philosophically resigned mind.

As Marcus established the transience of both the body and soul, he points out that they are both made out of the same stuff as everything else in the universe. Since we are not disturbed at the constant flux of our constitutive elements as we live, we should not be alarmed at the final dissolution of the elements which make ourselves, as both bodies and souls.

1 Τοῦ ἀνθρωπίνου βίου ὁ μὲν χρόνος στιγμή, ἡ δὲ οὐσία ῥέουσα, ἡ δὲ αἴσθησις ἀμυδρά, ἡ δὲ ὅλου τοῦ σώματος σύγκρισις εὔσηπτος, ἡ δὲ ψυχὴ ῥόμβος, ἡ δὲ τύχη δυστέκμαρτον, ἡ δὲ φήμη ἄκριτον: συνελόντι δὲ εἰπεῖν, πάντα τὰ μὲν τοῦ σώματος ποταμός, τὰ δὲ τῆς ψυχῆς ὄνειρος καὶ τῦφος, ὁ δὲ βίος πόλεμος καὶ ξένου ἐπιδημία, [2] ἡ δὲ ὑστεροφημία λήθη. τί οὖν τὸ παραπέμψαι δυνάμενον; ἓν καὶ μόνον φιλοσοφία: τοῦτο δὲ ἐν τῷ τηρεῖν τὸν ἔνδον δαίμονα ἀνύβριστον καὶ ἀσινῆ, ἡδονῶν καὶ πόνων κρείσσονα, μηδὲν εἰκῇ ποιοῦντα μηδὲ διεψευσμένως καὶ μεθ̓ ὑποκρίσεως, ἀνενδεῆ τοῦ ἄλλον ποιῆσαί τι ἢ μὴ ποιῆσαι: ἔτι δὲ τὰ συμβαίνοντα καὶ ἀπονεμόμενα δεχόμενον ὡς ἐκεῖθέν ποθεν ἐρχόμενα, ὅθεν αὐτὸς ἦλθεν: ἐπὶ πᾶσι δὲ τὸν θάνατον ἵλεῳ τῇ γνώμῃ περιμένοντα ὡς οὐδὲν ἄλλο ἢ λύσιν τῶν στοιχείων, ἐξ ὧν ἕκαστον ζῷον συγκρίνεται. εἰ δὲ αὐτοῖς τοῖς στοιχείοις μηδὲν δεινὸν ἐν τῷ ἕκαστον διηνεκῶς εἰς ἕτερον μεταβάλλειν, διὰ τί ὑπίδηταί τις τὴν πάντων μεταβολὴν καὶ διάλυσιν; κατὰ φύσιν γάρ: οὐδὲν δὲ κακὸν κατὰ φύσιν. Τὰ ἐν Καρνούντῳ.