Thursday, May 30, 2013

Marcus Aurelius on the Good Life

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE): Meditations

Comment: Some criticism of Marcus Aurelius, by Bertrand Russell in particular, is focused on his emphasis on favoring what is "good".  (See Russell's chapter entitled "Stoicism" in his 1945 classic "History of Western Philosophy" for example).

Can we really know what is good?  Is there a universal good and is it innate?  Can being bad in some cases be considered good?

Furthermore, if being good cannot ensure happiness can good be considered good?  Or alternatively, if good cannot ensure longevity or an eternal afterlife then is it even necessary to want the good life?

I think the underlying problem is one of context and appreciating Marcus Aurelius' method.

If you read enough of Meditations (there are 12 books) then it becomes somewhat clear that he was not seeking to complicate his definition of what is good or its relationship to evil.

And for this reason he appears somewhat naive in his belief that what is good can be known.

He also appears uncertain about the purpose or end result of being good.  So living a good life is a universal value and it may or may not please the gods depending on their nature or whether they exist or not.

But given that he is part of the Stoic philosophical tradition one can reasonably assume that he did not intend to mean a life of pleasure but rather a life of austere restraint and meditation.

His Meditations are, after all, written to himself.  And, the content of his meditating implies that he favors a life of thinking, perhaps even feeling through, the questions of what makes a life good.

In other words, life is a meditated engagement toward establishing what is good.  A good life is, therefore, not implicit, or designed by consensus, but rather deliberately thought through if even uncertain in purpose other than being revered for being good or "noble".

So then maybe a life without meditation and contemplation cannot be considered a good life.

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