Friday, February 20, 2009

Marcus and me

There is a handful of books I have kept with me since college. Rarely have I gone anywhere without them. Among them is Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. I was looking at it the other day, and something he wrote, which Tolstoy echoed, struck me. Aurelius observes that the past no longer exists, the future has not yet happened; we have only the present. Now, as I have noted elsewhere in this site, this is a sentiment which Tolstoy often expressed, and which, evidently, was important to him. However, Aurelius goes on to state that this present, which is all that man has, is where his soul lives. The soul dwells only in the present, for Aurelius, and the present is outside of time. In fact, Aurelius says, the present is eternal. Now whether the soul dwells there because it is eternal or whether it is eternal because the soul dwells there he does not say. Nonetheless, I though that this added observation about the soul, which I believe Tolstoy also embraced, was striking.

If the soul, or, as I would say, the animating force, lives exclusively in an eternal present, then it follows that man - corporeal man - belongs to the past and future. The distinction here is what caught my imagination. Man, that is, the union of body and soul, exists only in time, and time consists only of the past and the future. But the soul resides in the present, which lies outside of time. The soul no longer exists in the past, and there is no future wherein is may exist. It belongs to neither. There is no past tense or future tense in the vocabulary of the spirit. There is only the now.

For both Aurelius and Tolstoy, the present is eternal. Both believed that man should concentrate on it, setting aside the past and refusing to worry about the future. Only in this way, they believed, could man be happy. I think Jesus believed this, too, for he taught (if you can believe the Gospels) that one was not to worry about such things as clothing or food, or other quotidian cares, but to trust in the heavenly father, who is, like the present, eternal.

By living in the present, then, man can, in effect, live in eternity. But is there not a contradiction here? If corporeal man belongs to the temporal past and future, how can he live in the eternal present? The answer seems to lie in self-negation. And I think this is true for Aurelius, Tolstoy and Jesus. Surely, some form of negation of the corporeal self is implicit in Jesus' urging to become unconcerned with temporal cares, such as food and clothing, trusting instead to a benevolent father. And though his terminology may be quaint, it is still telling. For all three thinkers, letting go one's clenched grip on time with all its worries would lead not to ruin but to solace. For all three, the divine is essentially caring, good and sustaining. For all of them, release from time is a form not only of freedom but also of peace.

The salvation of the soul, then, comes from concentrating on the present, which runs counter to everything we are taught in our culture, including the dictates of religion. The whole concept of sin, repentance, and preparation for the afterlife, central to all Western religions, militates against this immersion in an eternal present. For it is only by controlling men in time that religions can hold sway over their lives. Control time, and you control destiny, behavior, guilt, hope and, above all, power. And exercising power over men's lives is what government, economy and religion are all about.

Yet it is the destiny of one's spirit that individual life is all about, and to realize this destiny, Aurelius, Tolstoy, Jesus and others, have argued that one must learn to dwell outside of time. And to do this, they seem to be saying, one must refuse to regret, refuse to fret, and live instead in the present.

It is an elusive and difficult idea, and I will have to think further about it.