Confusion or order?

“The universe is either a confusion, an intermingling of atoms, and a scattering; or it is unity and order and providence. If it is the former, why do I wish to tarry amid such a haphazard confusion and disorder? Why do I care about anything but how I may at last become earth? And why do I trouble myself, for my elements will be scattered, whatever I do. But if the other supposition is true, I revere, I stand firm, and I trust in him who governs.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Ch. VI, para. 10, trans. by George Long.

What’s interesting to me is how this illustrates the fact that faith is a choice, an act of will. We don’t know with scientific certainty which of the two options is the true one, therefore we’re free to choose to believe that the universe is aimless, or that it’s ordered. If it’s the former, then why care what happens? In fact, why not leave this life as soon as possible? The fact that we don’t, perhaps betrays us.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Confusion or order?

  1. how does it follow that life does not have subjective value worth prolonging if the universe is confusion and disorder? (Not answering whether it is or is not, just I don’t know how that follows).

    In other words, why does the universe need to have an aim for you to derive value from your own life?

    It seems like we would only want to leave this life as soon as possible if we did not derive value from our own lives. Which I can see how in cases of like, depression and things like that, that can be a real possibility for people to consider, and although I think for the families of those who are in situations like that, it’s worth seeing if those things can be ameliorated or treated (not for the “universe”, but for the experiences of those living)…but I can also respect people making the decision that life isn’t worth it. But that’s a judgment call on an individual level and I’m not seeing how that would be prescribed objectively or universally

    Like

    • This doesn’t purport to be a demonstrated logical conclusion. I think Aurelius is just saying that if life is aimless then there’s no reason to endure it. In asking “Why tarry?”, he’s asking, for what reason? People may choose to endure it; people choose all kinds of things. Nevertheless there’s no *reason* to endure it if it’s pointless, i.e. if there’s no point to it. It would be only an individual, arbitrary choice.

      I’m guessing that for Aurelius, if life is pointless, then death is preferable; and I tend to agree. Generally speaking, life is so difficult and hard to endure that most people would end it, but for a sneaking suspicion, if not an outright conviction, that it’s wrong to do so. The universe exhibits so much beauty and order that they find it hard to believe, even if they want to, that life is truly aimless, and that’s what keeps most people going; both because the orderedness of the universe itself makes life worth living, and also that it’s in some way a violation of that orderedness (and therefore against the will of the Orderer, if they take it that far) to kill oneself.

      Like

  2. “I think Aurelius is just saying that if life is aimless then there’s no reason to endure it. In asking “Why tarry?”, he’s asking, for what reason? People may choose to endure it; people choose all kinds of things. Nevertheless there’s no *reason* to endure it if it’s pointless, i.e. if there’s no point to it. It would be only an individual, arbitrary choice.”

    I’m not seeing that. People don’t make choices arbitrarily. Subjectively driven, individually applicable reasons are still reasons.

    But this gets into another thing that bugs me about this post. You say that, in the absence of scientific certainty, we can choose to believe chaos or order. This seems to have the same sort of implication: that you think this too here is an act of will that “has no reason” and that without scientific certainty, it is “an individual, arbitrary choice.”

    But I don’t think anyone perceives it like that. It certainly does not feel like a 50/50 coin flip either way. One thing seems more likely than the other (although we may disagree on which thing that is). I can recognize that my feelings may not reflect what is objectively the case, but I have to live what I feel, not what is objectively the case.

    Maybe Aurelius felt the way he did and you feel the way you do, but it’s just a very foreign feeling to me. I don’t even understand where this thought process comes from. Maybe I’m just incredibly fortunate that I’ve had a pretty good life…But then again, as we’ve discussed in several discussions, I also don’t think beauty needs to inhere in objects themselves. What matters to me is my own perception and experience of beauty because that’s what I engage with.

    Like

    • Obviously an individual can think up subjective reasons for not committing suicide. But I think Aurelius’ question, “Why tarry?”, speaks to the reason for life itself. If the universe itself has no reason to exist, then nothing within it has a reason to exist either, no reason in the same sense as the universe itself might have for existing, an ultimate purpose or goal or end. As he puts it, “[W]hy do I trouble myself, for my elements will be scattered, whatever I do?” I may be able to think up some subjective goal or purpose, but once I’m gone it won’t amount to anything.

      To understand his point, it might help to think about how he viewed the world. He was not a Christian, he was a Stoic. He believed that everything in the universe operated according to nature and was interconnected, so that whatever might happen to you personally, even if you didn’t like it, you should accept it as being part of a larger plan. Whereas if everything was not interconnected and did not operate according to any plan or unified nature, then bad things that happened to you were just bad things, in which case there is no reason to put up with them. You might be able to think up “individually applicable” reasons that apply to your immediate circumstances, but there is no ultimate, overarching reason to endure them. They don’t make sense and they’re not ultimately getting you anywhere.

      Undoubtedly you have lived a very, very good life compared with the vast majority of people who have ever lived.

      Yes, we can choose to believe in chaos or order. I agree with you that one seems more likely than the other.

      You say that beauty need not inhere in things, all that matters is your perception of beauty. Would you say the same about order?

      Like

      • I may be able to think up some subjective goal or purpose, but once I’m gone it won’t amount to anything.

        But after you’re gone, it doesn’t *matter*. Subjective goals and purposes matter while we’re here to experience them. So to me, to say it won’t amount to anything once I’m gone misses the point — I am not concerned about whatever happens when I’m gone because I’ll be gone!

        Whereas if everything was not interconnected and did not operate according to any plan or unified nature, then bad things that happened to you were just bad things, in which case there is no reason to put up with them. You might be able to think up “individually applicable” reasons that apply to your immediate circumstances, but there is no ultimate, overarching reason to endure them. They don’t make sense and they’re not ultimately getting you anywhere.

        Yeah, I’m not seeing why one needs ultimate, overarching reasons to endure them.

        You say that beauty need not inhere in things, all that matters is your perception of beauty. Would you say the same about order?

        Yeah, to the extent that if someone thinks there is chaos, that speaks more to their perception and experience of chaos, regardless of whether there is chaos or not. If they think there is order, that speaks more to their perception of order, regardless of what actually is the case.

        Like

  3. >> I am not concerned about whatever happens when I’m gone because I’ll be gone!

    But his point was that since nothing matters when you’re gone, there’s no need to stick around and endure life’s difficulties. He’s asking, Why should we? What’s the point? He’s not saying that someone who realizes there’s no point but wishes to stick around and take his punishment anyway, should not do so.

    Your argument is that we make our own “point”, we have our own, subjective reasons for enduring life. But I think Aurelius is talking about objective reasons, the kind of reasons that could override personal preference, and he’s saying that if life has no point, then there are no such reasons.

    You’re also saying that you don’t see life as a punishment, and that’s fine. Good for you. But I suspect Aurelius assumes that for most people, most of the time, life is a trial; which I think is true enough in our time, but in his time all the more so. M. Scott Peck chose as the first sentence of his book The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” Whatever you think of the book, I think that sentence is profound. I consider it one of the essential truths of life on this earth, that it’s not easy. Every day, from the time we get out of bed until we retire, we must push against our own inertia. To get anywhere in life you must be willing to embrace difficulty and suffering. The more willing you are to embrace those things, generally the happier and more prosperous you will be (all other things being equal). Those who spend their lives avoiding difficulty are the ones most likely to end up poor and lonely.

    And I consider it one of the essential truths of human nature, that we don’t do things that are hard without good reason, either because we have no choice, or that we expect to gain some greater good by enduring the evil, or that we’re afraid of the alternative — the alternative being, ultimately, suicide, since you never escape difficulty in life.

    In other words, suffering can’t be an end in itself, therefore it must be a means to an end. But spending your life pursuing nothing but means, makes life unsatisfying. The more you realize you are pursuing means for the sake of other means, but without an ultimate end, the less reason you have for continuing the struggle.

    A lot of people don’t look into it that deeply. They just take each day as it comes and don’t think about the purpose of their lives. But when things get really hard, often you have no choice but to think about why you’re putting up with it. It is in times like this (if not others as well) that an ultimate end in life becomes important.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s