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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Selections Annotated and Explained by Malaspina Great Books Web Editor Russell McNeil PhD
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Selections Annotated and Explained

Russell McNeil, PhD
Editor, Malaspina Great Books

In 1862 the English literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as "the most beautiful figure in history." The Stoicism of Aurelius is grounded in rationality and rests solidly on an ethical approach rooted in nature. Stoicism promises real happiness and joy in this life and a serenity that can never be soured by personal misfortune. This philosophy has universal appeal with practical implications on problems ranging from climate change and terrorism to the personal management of sickness, aging, depression and addiction. I truly believe that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has much to offer us now...(Click on book cover for more)

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Name:Michel de Montaigne

On Cannibals
Birth Year:1533
Death Year:1592
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Writer, b. years later Montaigne at the chateau of Montaigne, in Perigord, France, on 28 Feb., 1533; d. there, 13 Sept., 1592. His great-grandfather had been a Bordeaux merchant of wines, salt fish, etc., and it was he who purchased the estate of Montaigne. His father entered the army and married Antoinette de Louppes or Lopes, of Jewish origin, and for two years was mayor of Bordeaux. At an early age Michel had a German tutor, who was obliged to speak to him in Latin only. At the age of six and a half he was sent to the College of Guyenne at Bordeaux, where he remained seven years. It is believed that he studied logic and dialectics for two years at the Bordeaux Faculty of Arts, with Marc-Antoine de Muret as tutor. He afterwards studied law, possibly at Bordeaux, more probably at Toulouse. Having become counsellor at the Cour des Aides of Perigord, he was soon incorporated like his colleagues in the Parlement of Bordeaux. But the new counsellor had no liking for his profession, and he was often absent from the Parlement. From 1561 to 1563 he attended the court. From 1559 he knew La Boetie, his chosen friend, and like himself a counsellor in the Parlement of Perigord and his elder by six years; but death soon separated them (1563).

Two years later Montaigne married Francoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of a parliamentary advocate. They had five daughters, only one of whom survived him. In 1570 at the age of thirty-seven he sold his post of counsellor, and in the following year retired to the chateau de Montaigne. There, from 1571 to 1580, he wrote his Essays. The first edition of this work contained only two books. He then set out on a journey which lasted a year and a half, of which he has written in his Journal. He went to Lorraine and Alsace, started for Switzerland, crossed Bavaria and came down to the Tyrol, saw Venice and reached Rome, the end of his journey, where he received letters of citizenship. During his absence he had been made mayor of Bordeaux, which office he held for four years (1581-85), his duties coming to an end when the pest broke out. Montaigne being absent from the town did not feel obliged to return to it. In 1588 he published a new edition of his Essays, corrected and augmented by a third book. He continued to revise his work until his death. In 1595 Mlle de Gournay, the young woman who at the age of twenty-two became his enthusiastic admirer, and whom he called his daughter, issued a new edition, in which she inserted the revisions and additions when he had indicated in a copy in 1588.

It is impossible to analyse the Essays. They are a long conversation in which the author sets forth in haphazard fashion his memories and his reflections. His memories are the result of his personal experience and especially of his very extensive reading. According to his own expression he himself is "the subject of his book". But what excuses him is doubtless the fact that in depicting himself he often depicts human nature in general. He is a charming conversationalist, a writer full of pith and colour, artlessness, grace, and life. His literary merits add to the dangers of his book, which is deliberately lascivious and as a whole openly favourable to the Pyrrhonians. He has even written that it is "a slack ear for a shapely head". However, on the other hand, he thanked "our sovereign Creator for having stayed our trust on the everlasting foundation of His holy word". He also said that outside of the path pointed out by the Church reason "is lost, embarrassed, shackled". In a letter he relates in a Christian manner the Christian death of his friend La Boetie. He himself, as soon as he became ill, would not send for a priest, and in his last illness did not depart from this custom. Pasquier relates that he "caused Mass to be said in his chamber and when the priest came to the elevation the poor gentleman raised himself as well as he could in bed with hands joined and thus yielded his soul to God". He died therefore in a supreme act of faith. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)]

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On Cannibals

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]


My initial reactions to Montaigne are generally positive. The quality that leaps to mind is urbanity and modernity. His disarmingly personal style is attractive and engaging. The intimate and searching quality of his conversation is what I might expect from a friend. Montaigne died just over 400 years ago - yet there is little archaic in his style or language.

I remember how Plato's Socrates taught us about death in the Apology. Death is either an endless and peaceful sleep or an opportunity for sustained conversation with great minds. Death is a win-win sort of thing. In his essay On Experience Montaigne inches us along a similar path. Drawing on Stoic wisdom - as he does repeatedly in his essays - Montaigne suggests: nature has given us pain in order to appreciate its absence. He treats his own disease -- painful bouts with sharp kidney stones that frequently, prick and tear at the neck of his penis as a game. [it] plays its game by itself, and lets me play mine...I have ridden a horse for ten hours when it was most severe. He jousts with his kidney stones. Endure it. He says. If it gets worse, devise new stratagems. ... Since I last wrote this new development...the slightest movement draws pure blood from the kidneys. What of it? I do not for all that give up moving. I gallop after my hounds with a youthful ardour that is unusual in me. ...he who is afraid of suffering already suffers from his own fears.

Pain where is thy sting? This guy teaches us how to suffer; he offers us an attitude that we find rather appealing. Its not that long-suffering stiff upper lip British take that I'd always assumed. This is playful. As kidney stones rip his flesh Montaigne flips a bird! Why the hell not?

What is it about the stoic philosophy Montaigne has so successfully subsumed into his peculiar attitudes towards the body, and in other manifestations his candid openness towards sexuality, friendship, and cannibals [as we'll see]. And what is it about all of this we find so ingratiating, so friendly - so modern?

There are criticisms of Montaigne. Central in those is that the modernity we celebrate is nothing more than our modern appreciation of ego-centrism. Montaigne is a me-freak. Montaigne is quick with the ancient maxims, but his repeated references to ancient wisdom are misapplied and ingenuous. Montaigne's apparent modernity results from twisted, perhaps even a malignant misreading of the past -- distorting it to suit his personal agenda. He's a wolf in sheep's clothing eclipsing even Machiavelli in the perpetration of modern evils: from the death of public duty, to the seductive and delusional cancer of soft relativism. Montaigne's honeyed and hypnotic musings flow over us with the sedutive air of the getting better every day in every way wing of our modern self-help. Sweet but empty ideas unsupported by logic or honest reflection.

Such sharp criticisms might have some substance if Montaigne did celebrate the private space of the self - and to prioritize the private space at the expense of the public.

The tradition Montaigne seems to espouse (seems to if he is a sheep in wolf's clothing) : Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil and Stoicism - is focused ultimately on a notion that the good life is focused primarily on duty and obligation to the polis, to neighbor, to community, or generally to the public space. It's not that the ancients never navel gaze. They do. Know thyself, is of course the mantra of the ancient world. But that ancient mantra morphed -- on its way to modern times. We forgot why that ancient duty was so important. For the ancients, knowing oneself was a pre-condition for public service. Justice in the public realm, required an ordering here - in the inner realm. A just world requires just men. Somehow along the past we forgot that lesson. The reason for living -- the good-life meant the cultivation of personal space, individual freedom, and all that.

What then is Montaigne really about? Does he re-engineer the wisdom of the past to service his personal space agenda. Or, does he focus so much on self to know himself in that ancient spirit -- as a pre-condition for action in the wider domain? If indeed in that spirit, Montaigne's credentials could be seen as pure as those of the classic men he professes to emulate and to admire. And this is the position I argue he does hold.

I'm going to focus mainly on the essay, On Cannibals. I think that essay clearly answers any criticism along these lines. That work is clearly focused on the public good and seeringly critical of Eurocentric attitudes. The Euro-centrism Montaigne attacks in the essay is caused by the appalling failure of those of his generation to do precisely what most of his other work is so clearly demonstrates: one must know oneself before we can pretend to know others.


I'll get back to this in a moment. First I want to revisit the source of Montaigne's attitudes - that stoic influence we notice in his essay and musings on suffering in On Experience

Stoicism became one of the most important traditions in the philosophy of the Greek and later Roman world and eventually had considerable influence on the development of early Christianity. The Roman Stoics, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius in particular were widely read and absorbed by the Western cultural tradition. The very word 'stoic' has, in the popular sense, come to represent courage and calmness in the face of adverse and trying circumstances. One phrase that captures a sense of Stoicism--is one attributed to the Stoic Epictetus, a former slave: Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well. Montaigne like all earlier Stoic thinkers was impressed with the thought and character of Socrates. But the trait they most admired in Socrates is his strength of character and his independence from external circumstances.

For the early Stoics virtue resided not in externals things, but in rational internal self-sufficiency. And Socrates is an ideal role model here.

The stoics held that all reality is material, but that matter proper, which is passive, is to be distinguished from the animating or active principle, Logos, which stoics conceived as both the divine reason and as simply a finer kind of material entity, an all-pervading breath or fire. According to them the human soul is a manifestation of the Logos. Living according to nature or reason, they held, is living in conformity with the divine order of the universe. The foundation of Stoic ethics is the principle that good lies not in external objects, but in the state of the soul itself, in the wisdom and restraint by which a person is delivered from the passions and desires that perturb the ordinary life ... including the vile tearing and pricking of a kidney stone.

The main virtues of the Stoic philosophy are the same as those we are familiar with from the Republic: wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation. The major differences in stoic thinking in contrast to those of Plato and Aristotle are its rejection of Platonic abstractions. Stoics come to know things through the impressions they make upon us. The universe is regarded as one living being - a materialistic entity comprising active and passive component. The interactions of these two components was grounded in a highly sophisticated Stoic Physics. in which the individual was seen as subordinate to the physical laws of nature or logos.

The Stoics were also determinists, even fatalists. Whatever happens happens necessarily. A life of virtue is a life led in accordance with nature - a nature which is seen as rational and perfect. This does not mean that humans are powerless. For stoics the one arena where humans really do have power is within -- and it is in this internal territory where we can make a difference in the world -- this is the high ground where most of our real active life occurs.

Because this internal arena is an important and tranquil space, we are able to retire there and to engage in in active contemplation or meditation - you can see why this element of Stoic thinking might be attractive to modern self-help movements.

Remember Aurelius: It is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity.

Meditation can be and is a potent psychological device, as many eastern traditions and countless other less traditional practitioners of meditative arts have discovered in more recent times. Internal withdrawal is sufficient to, as Aurelius says, cleanse the soul completely.

Now taken at face value this seems to imply that the public space is not important, insofar as deliberation or contemplation is concerned. But for stoics, and I believe Montaigne is faithful to stoic thinking, the intelligence of the universe manifest in the interaction of its active and passive principles is social. The naval gazing we see in Montaigne is really a method one engages to engage in discourse with nature. We come to understand the nature and its unfolding through meditation on self.


Let's see how this works in Montaigne's essay on Cannibals.

Cannibals are people who eat human flesh.

Cannibals make us nervous. So, we look to Montaigne for relief. It's not relief he offers us.

Montaigne never tells us who the cannibals are--who are the people this essay is really about.

Yes, there is a Brazilian tribe of people who as part of one of their rituals of war, do eat dead human flesh--yes, but are they the cannibals?

I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead; to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling, to roast it by degrees, and then give it to be trampled and eaten by dogs and swine--a practice which we have not only read about but seen within recent memory, not between ancient enemies, but between neighbors and fellow citizens and, what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion -- than to roast and eat a man after he is dead.

Oh my god! This has potential. If I was in a position of power at this point in reading this essay - I'd begin to squirm. Montaigne is not targeting a primitive people. He is targeting something else.

Who then are these cannibals? From whence do they derive their corrupt tastes [meaning corrupt from our European perspective] -- surely nothing is more corrupt than to consume the flesh of one's own kind.

These people, says Montaigne, are wild in the same ways that fruits are wild, when nature has produced them in her ordinary way... For Montaigne he means the operation of nature writ large - and operating according to natural principles governed by Stoic principles.

In these [people], Montaigne says, the true, most useful, and natural virtues and properties are alive and vigorous. He goes on, ...in fact, it is those that we have artificially modified (meaning us) [that] we ought to call wild...[for in fact] it is those (meaning us) we have bastardized and adapted to the gratification of our corrupt taste.

We, he goes on, have so loaded the richness and beauty of [nature's] works with our [inventions] that we have altogether stifled her [meaning nature]. Whenever [nature] shines forth in her purity [as here in the example of these flesh eating people], she makes our vain and trivial enterprises marvelously shameful.

Montaigne draws not on not on Stoic thinkers to shore up this argument. But he draws on the master - Plato: All things said Plato are produced by nature, or chance or by art. The greatest by the first two, the most imperfect by the last. It was Plato who placed nature before art.

How does Montaigne characterize these flesh eating people? He references their simplicity, their innocence and their lack of artificiality. These are words we normally ascribe to children. Noble savages? Not quite! But, these people are far from the child-like nobel savage innocents we will meet in the writings of later enlightenment writers - Rousseau in particular.

Two of these savages, Montaigne says, were brought to France, where they were shown the wonders of 16th century European culture and its wonders (or inventions). They visited and spoke with the French king, Charles the ninth. And were shown the magnificence and sights of a fine city. Montaigne himself spoke with them after, and asked them--these cannibals--what they found most remarkable about the wonders of this magnificent and refined world. What Montaigne reports astonishes us - even in the smug confines of our oh-so-enlighened-and-oh-so-politically-correct-and-understanding-21st-century-liberality.

It was strange that so many strong armed men should obey a child [these cannibals comment to Montaigne with reference to the king Charles IX] -- rather than to choose one from their own number. [aside: Charles IX was crowned king at the age of 11 and died at the age of 24. He was regarded as weak and ineffectual during his short reign]. The other point Montaigne reports on the reactions of these savage cannibals is that they found it strange that in a culture of halves and haves nots, and rich and poor, that the poor who suffered from such injustice, did not take the rich by their throat and set fire to their homes. Isn't that just wonderful. [Sarcastic aside from Russell - Montaigne is interested in nothing other than his own personal space - right!]

[Commentary] These cannibal children, it seems, had an uncomfortably uncommon and refined instinct for social and natural justice: a view emerging from a sophisticated understanding and appreciation of humans as disconnected halves. If there were a Brazilian theology on the custom of cannibalism it might not be hard to imagine spiritual significance in the joining of halves through their unusual rituals of flesh. How different really is this from the Christian practice of consuming the living body and blood of Christ? Montaigne does not take us that far - but it's not hard to imagine how he might.

[Commentary cont'd] Simplicity, innocence and lack of artificiality in this social structure might well mean this is as good as it gets. This is where un-mediated Stoic Physics will bring you. This is how he sees these cannibals: they are a people where there is no lying, no treason, no greed, no envy, no slander: a functional society employing simple graceful arts and technologies which, in imitating nature, harmonize with rather than dominate and subdue the nature of which they are a part.

[Examples. Stoic thinking and Stoic physics lives on. An engineering friend of mine at UVic, Dr. David Scott, has invested his entire career in mechanical engineering under the force of this ethos. He is a pioneer in the application of fuel cells. Fuel cells are non-polluting technologies that produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen. They are at the hearts of the engines that will power our cars and buses in the future. Ballard technologies in Vancouver is a world leader in their manufacture. What's neat about these cells is that the electro-chemical principle underlying their operation was copied directly from nature. It's the same principle that trees and green plants use in growing. Trees combine carbon dioxide, water and sunlight using a trick called photo-synthesis. In doing this they make leaves and oxygen as a byproduct. Fuel cells imitate that natural chemistry. Internal combustion engines - the way we run engines now - are not modeled on anything that goes on in the natural world. They, like the alien inventions of art Montaigne refers to in his essay, are seen nowhere in nature. They imitate nothing, and befoul everything.

I ran across another example of Stoic science on Friday. There a bug in nature - the Bombadier Beetle. Ignored for years and one of many rain forest beetles threatened by extinction as the rain forests are leveled. When this beetle is provoked by an enemy it raises its little ass into the air and fires a rotating jet of scalding hot fluid in a 360 degree arc. The fluid has a temperature of 100 degrees Centigrade. The obvious question is how in the hell does this beetle store a fluid in its body at that temperature? The answer is - it doesn't. It's a chemical reaction. When threatened the beetle brings two chemicals together in a chamber near its anus. The resulting exothermic reaction rapidly increases the temperature and pressure and produces the jet. A second question is why the beetle doesn't burn its ass off? The answer is - it does. But the destroyed tissue heals more quickly than anything known in nature. The Stoic aspect of this is something most engineers and scientists would have missed because like Montaigne's arrogant pre-enlightenment thinkers, most moderns ignore nature in looking for clues or solutions for human problems. To make a long story short, yes, there is some research and in fact a prototype rocket has been designed based now on using a combination of the same chemicals this bug uses to produce its spray. There is other research looking seriously into the healing properties this bug uses to re-grow it's ass. Don't be surprised if you read about this sometime soon in an application to human burns.]

Back to our story. The society of cannibals is a society - a natural society - that works.

The cannibals refer their actions to two principle philosophical virtues, valor in battle and the love of their wives: these two values and nothing more are needed to ensure integrity of community, and family, and person. You can decide if valorous fighting and spousal loving are values derived from an observation of nature.

In this society the lawgivers--cannibal prophets--provide a overview and stability from above--but these people face the stern-est of penalties for misguiding their people--if they falsely advise they are cut into a thousand pieces.

Getting down to the subject of the essay, the custom and practice of cannibalism is a form of ritualized vengeance which is mingled with a respect for the victim. It is done only in the context of battle, in the taking of prisoners and as a way of completing the cycle that battles begin.

These people fight and fiercely.

But that motivation for fighting is natural valor. They do not fight to gain territory, political power, booty, or title. The fighting is noble, disinterested, excusable and beautiful. Community requires valor; valor requires ritual; the ritual is the battle; its spoils the intermingling of the flesh of victor and vanquished. The vanquished are of course never really vanquished because they never yield to the admission of loss that these rituals demand. Machismo (savor this flesh--it is intermingled with that of your fathers and grandfathers) and ferocity ensure that whoever loses, both sides win; in another year the roles will reverse.

Montaigne's perception of how the other virtue, love, is best exemplified is in the poetry and verse of a native song:

Adder, stay. Stay, adder, so that my sister may follow the pattern of your markings, to make and embroider a fine girdle for me to give to my beloved. So shall your beauty and markings be preferred forever above all the other serpents.'


Montaigne judges the refrain and its sentiment as Anacreontic -- referring to Anacreon of Teos, a poet known for love songs and revered in antiquity as second only to Sappho from Lesbos--and honored in his day by a statue on the Athenian Acropolis near another statue of none other than Pericles.

On cannibals can be read as a powerful contemporary political and religious critique, a genuine attempt at social anthropology, a utopian fantasy, or as an essay on cannibals. In some ways it is all and none of the above.

Montaigne might claim without the guidance of nature we have no criterion for truth other than the opinions and customs of the place we live. Without nature we see the world through the prism of our own experience and belief. These customs and opinions - no matter how sophisticated - are simply inventions of art - and cannot but blind our understanding. However if our perceptions are guided by a natural philosophy - the eye of antiquity - we will see goodness and nobility -- not because of innocence, simplicity and a lack artificiality, but because the virtue of the Greek world was that it too - like the world of these cannibals - molded in large measure on a Stoic ideal.

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This web page is part of a biographical database on Great Ideas. These are living ideas that have shaped, defined and directed world culture for over 2,500 years. By definition the Great Ideas are radical. As such they are sometimes misread, or distorted by popular simplifications. Understanding a Great Idea demands personal engagement. Our selection of Great Ideas is drawn from literature and philosophy, science, art, music, theatre, and cinema. We also include biographies of pivotal historical and religious figures, as well as contributions from women and other historically under-represented minorities. The result is an integrated multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary database built upon the framework of the always controversial Great Books Core List published in 1940 by the late Great Books Pioneer Mortimer Adler (1902-2001). Most of the works on that list are available in the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.

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