March 23, 2013

The concept of Infinity


One of the least appealing modern traits is to imagine that we've discovered everything new- in some ways that's true. The ancient world did not have television and were not plagued by endless reruns of Friends on E4. But equally they did have concepts that we might not have expected them to have: take this statement from Marcus Aurelius: 'the phrase infinity may pass, even if the world be in fact administered in finite cycles'. It seems to me what this throwaway comment is getting at is that there are different types of infinity: one might be an infinity which is truly infinite, one might be an infinity that is infinite because the finity that really exists is unccountable or unknowable and a last might be that infinity is a reasonable approximation of a set of a finite number of cycles. I'm happy with whichever infinity you want Marcus to define- but the fact seems to be here is an ancient author, not a mathematician, with at least two concepts of infinity.

March 21, 2013

A sobering reflection


Mislead yourself no longer, you will never read these notebooks again now, nor the annals of the bygone Romans and Greeks, nor that choice selection of writings you have put by for your old age. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)
I read this passage from the Meditations with nothing but despair- for since Marcus died, all those centuries ago, how much has been published? How many learned men and women have worked and slaved away at scholarship? You could get amazingly dizzy thinking of all the fields that you need to understand to really understand even one fraction of human knowledge- one subject today. Think about the history of Marcus's life: just to read all the books about the Meditations would probably take at least the length of a post-graduate qualification, probably half an academic career. Then move on to the think about the archaeology and sociology of that period- its interpretations by further periods and more and more. Intellectual vertigo existed in Marcus's life- it exists just as much today.

March 20, 2013

Marcus Aurelius and monarchy

Monarchy is distinguished from tyranny by several things in the classical tradition. One might be that monarchs are restrained, whereas tyrants are servants of appetite. I've just come across another really interesting reflection in Marcus Aurelius's meditations

Through him [Marcus's brother Severus] I came to know of Thrasea, Cato, Helvidius, Dion and Brutus, and became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.

Marcus's statement here is fascinating. Monarchy is coupled with liberty. Furthermore within the statement is an implicit rebuke to tyranny: Thrasea was executed by Nero, as was his son Helvidius. Cato died at the hands of Caesar. Brutus could refer either to Lucius Brutus- who slew Tarquin- or Marcus Brutus- who slew Caesar himself and died at the hands of Octavian. These are emblems not just of good citizenship in a republic- indeed none of them lived under a republic (if you agree with Harriet Flowers' account of the Roman state)- they were emblems of rebellion. Its as though Prince William were to sign off a letter about the liberty under a crown by saying that he believed in the ideal of liberty under monarchy as preached by Cromwell and Tom Paine.

How could Marcus say this? In part I think its because he shared a philosophical attitude with these men- throughout his meditations he stresses the importance of standing up for one's own beliefs and opinions- being true to onesself in the ghastly modern phrase. Marcus means something more by this than we might- in the sense that he sees every single human reason as an expression of divine reason. In part I think its because the contrast he draws here is between one type of 'bad' monarchy and another more legitimate 'good' monarchy: because Rome's system was not hereditary, Marcus is not involved in the fate of Nero or Caesar in the same way as Victoria was in the fate of Charles. His belief system brings together these two conceptions- the first of self control and the second of good monarchy- I think through something else- which is the image of a good statesman. Curiously enough a rebellious subject may become the emblem of a good statesman in Marcus's world- so Brutus looks more like a monarch than does Nero. If that's true then lauding these individuals for their steadfastness in the public interest becomes in a way a certificate that men can hold to the principles of good statesmanship. In that sense- the rebellious subject is the mirror image of the good monarch- the tyrant of the flattering subject.