When Marcus Aurelius lay dying he turned to the guard of the night watch and said, cryptically, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.” We can only speculate as to the meaning he intended. For instance, it may have sounded to Romans as if he were alluding to the mystery religion of Mithraism or some other solar cult. However, it’s fair to say, though, that consistent with his approach throughout The Meditations, he appears to be portraying death as a process both natural and inevitable, just like the setting of the sun.
As I reflected on the meaning of this remark, it struck me that there are several passages in The Meditations which refer to the mind of the wise man using the metaphor of sunlight and, apparently related to these, several additional references to the mind as a lamp or blazing fire, casting light on the objects of the world. Indeed, according to their Physics, the Stoics believed that the intellect of man was composed of a subtle fiery substance, pneuma or spirit, the same substance from which the sun, the stars, and the other gods are made. The human mind, indeed, is a divine spark, a fragment of the Logos or cosmic fire that constitutes the Mind of Zeus.
Marcus continually reminds himself that the human mind has a duty to fulfil its own true nature, to become rational and wise, and not to be distracted or swayed from its path, something he likes to compare to the simplicity and purity with which the sun and stars shine forth in the sky. He says the sun does not undertake the work of the rain but fulfills its own nature. Each particular star is different from the others and yet they are all working together toward the same end (6.43). We should strive to do the same by cultivating the divine spark within us, fulfilling our human potential for wisdom and virtue. Everything in nature has come into being for a purpose. According to Marcus, the Sun himself would say, ‘I was born to perform a function’, and so would the rest of the gods (8.19). So it’s likewise our duty to know what our own true purpose is in life, something we try to discover through philosophy, the love of wisdom.
Marcus likes to refer to the stars as natural models of purity and simplicity. We should meditate, he says, on the the stars above as though accompanying them on their course through the night sky because thoughts such as these purify us from the defilements of our earthly existence (7.47). Even though the stars are separate and distinct they also form a natural unity together in the constellations of the night sky (9.9).
Marcus particularly attributes this idea of contemplating the orderliness and purity of the stars to the Pythagoreans, about whom Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had long ago written a book.
The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. (11.27)
The Pythagoreans believed that the stars and other heavenly bodies were divine. (They appear to move all by themselves, which to many ancient thinkers was a sign of life.) For Stoics they were gods but also merely fragmentary aspects of a greater divine Nature, or Zeus.
The Mind as the Sun
However, the nature of sunlight in particular becomes an important metaphor for the Stoic concept of mind throughout The Meditations. Marcus repeatedly stresses to himself that the light of the sun pours down in every direction and yet it is not exhausted. Its beams of light are merely an extension of its being. Sunlight is something very familiar to us. We see its beams entering a darkened room through a narrow window. It stretches out in a straight line and comes to rest on any solid body that intercepts it, cutting it off from whatever lies beyond. Sunlight appears to our eyes to rest exactly where its rays fall, without being deflected by its objects, like the wind, or being absorbed by them like water. It touches upon things lightly and illuminates them, without being contaminated by them. The pouring forth and spreading abroad of our mind should follow a similar pattern, extending itself without being exhausted or diminished. It should, like sunlight, not land with the force of a violent blow on the obstacles that it encounters nor dissipate, but steadily illuminate the objects before it. For what doesn’t welcome the light condemns itself to darkness (8.57).
Put very simply, I think Marcus would say today that we should think of our judgements, particularly our value judgements, as beams of light shining forth from our mind onto objects in the world. Values don’t exist in the world, we project them onto things. For the Stoics it’s therefore important to be aware of this and suspend these judgements or make them only lightly. Marcus consistently refers to this as the purification of the mind from being blended with externals, or its separation from things that belong to the world, or to the body.
From a more metaphysical perspective, Marcus reminds himself that sunlight is, in a sense, a single thing even though it is obstructed by walls, and mountains, and countless other obstacles. Likewise, for Stoic Physics, there is one common substance, though divided into countless individual bodies. There is one mind, even though it appears to be divided among countless creatures, each with its own characteristics. Material objects are senseless and have no affinity of this kind. But mind alone is naturally social, it tends towards what is akin to it and forms friendships and communities with others, and apparent divisions are overcome by the sense of common fellowship (12.30).
Likewise, he elsewhere says that one animal soul is distributed among irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided among rational creatures; just as there is one earth for all things formed from earth, and there is one light by which we all see and one air from which we all breathe (9.8). Fire tends to rise toward the heavens, with which it has an affinity, consuming whatever kindling is thrown upon it. So likewise, the mind naturally strives with even greater eagerness towards what is akin to itself, through the grasping of philosophical truths (9.9). The mind naturally loves virtue, and as social beings we aspire to make friends and form communities with other human beings, who share our capacity for reason. This is the bond of natural affection that Stoics believe exists between all rational beings, and which it’s our duty to cultivate into a sense of being at one with the rest of mankind, viewing them as our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens of the cosmic city.
Virtue as Sunlight or a Blazing Fire
Marcus also likes to describe virtue as a light blazing forth. A good, straightforward, and kindly person, he says, reveals these qualities in his eyes, they shine forth unmistakably in his gaze (11.15). In the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified, perhaps by Stoic mentoring and therapy, there nothing he says which would not bear examination or which hides away from the light (3.8).
Hence, there is nothing more wholesome and delightful, he says, than the sight of virtue shining forth in the characters of those around us. So we should be sure to keep these images ever at hand (6.48). Indeed, virtue is just like the light of a lamp which shines forth until it is extinguished, light extends itself afar without losing its radiance. In the same way, the cardinal virtues of truth, justice and self-control should shine forth without being exhausted (12.15).
Moreover, the mind of the wise man is like a blazing fire. All things human are mere smoke and nothingness, they continually change and then are gone forever. Don’t be troubled about them, Marcus says, but view life as a training ground for reason to examine things truthfully and objectively. The mind is naturally capable of assimilating the truth about everything that befalls you just as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light (10.31).
The preconceptions Nature planted within our souls are like sparks of wisdom, which need to be given fuel and fanned into a blazing fire. Hence, Marcus says the sparks of his Stoic principles need to be constantly fanned into new flames, such as that things that lie outside our intellect have no hold whatever over us. Once you renew these principles, which once you knew, then you will cease to be troubled, he says (7.2).
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills –a theme he returns to several times. You can retreat into yourself wherever you are and remember your Stoic principles, though. When your mind is in harmony with nature, it adapts itself readily to whatever befalls it. It’s not attached to any specific thing but rather prefers whatever is reasonable, and with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind. If it encounters an obstacle, it simply converts that into more material for the exercise of reason and virtue, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it. Piling up too much wood often extinguishes a little flame, but a blazing fire engulfs it all in an instant, and consumes it, making its flames burn even higher (4.1).
The Empedoclean Sphere
Marcus also makes very similar remarks about the mystical “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empdocles, who was closely associated with the Pythagoreans. This sphere represents the divine in perfect harmony but the mind of the wise man possesses similar qualities.
For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man’s true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Fr. 110)
Marcus likewise says that we have a body and feelings that our ours to take care of but only our intellect is truly our own. You will live a pure and unrestricted life if you will let go of everything that falls outside your own true nature, doing what is just, desiring what befalls you, and speaking the truth. If, that is, you will purify your ruling centre from everything external that becomes attached to it from the body, and everything in the past or future. Make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, as Marcus puts it, “a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it”, striving to live only the life that belongs to you here and now, then you will live out the rest of your days with peace and kindness, at peace with the divine spark within you (12.3).
Marcus appears to refer to this image of the Empedoclean sphere three times altogether. Elsewhere, he notes that neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way when it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, and it is capable of always remaining so (8.41).
Finally, he says that the sphere of the soul remains true to its natural form when neither stretching itself out towards anything outside itself nor contracting itself inwards, and when it is neither dispersed abroad nor shrinks back into itself, but shines forth with a steady light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth within itself (11.12). Here, the image of the Empedoclean sphere appears to merge with that of the sun shining its pure light onto objects without being defiled by them.
The poet Horace, in Satires (2.7), employs the same image of the perfect sphere in relation to Stoicism. He describes a speech delivered to him during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.
Who then is free? The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.