“Always remember the saying of Heraclitus, that the death of earth is to become water, and the death of water is to become air, and the death of air is to become fire, and reversely. And think too of him who forgets whither the way leads, and that men quarrel with that with which they are most constantly in communion, the reason which governs the universe; and the things which daily meet with seem to them strange: and consider that we ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep, for even in sleep we seem to act and speak; and that we ought not, like children who learn from their parents, simply to act and speak as we have been taught.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.46)
Marcus hitting us with a number of good Stoic nuggets today, the first is a favorite of his, not surprising given how many of his children died before him and how many wars he was involved in seeing over: death. But it’s not, at first, the death of the individual, it’s the death of other things, he’s talking about cycles, inevitable cycles. I find them interesting.
The death of earth is to become water. It’s not necessarily true, near as I can tell, but I get what he’s saying. Certainly water can erode, but that erosion doesn’t become water, and certainly it can flood, but flooded earth is still earth, even if it become a seafloor. But the sentiment is still nice I think. Earth isn’t forever, it does change, it can vanish, and over time it certainly will, even if it’s a very long time.
Atlantis, oh hell, where is Tanner going? Why did he just say Atlantis? Is this about to turn into a conspiracy podcast? No, let me finish. Atlantis was derived from the Island of Atlas, which is posited to be a fictional island, and one that was mentioned in Timaeus and Critias, two late dialogues written by Plato and, supposedly, which used Atlantis, or Atlas, to embody the ideas of an ideal state described in Plato’s Republic. I’m bringing it up to suggest that the idea of the sea swallowing things, and being “the death of earth” or “land” seems to be somewhat of a theme in the ancient world in general. So, perhaps not outrageous for Marcus to think land can become water.
The death of water is to become air, through evaporation presumably, and this also I don’t think is completely correct, I think water becomes a sort of vapor that coalesces into clouds and eventually becomes water again, but still, in the ancient world, this isn’t an outrageous thing to think, if water evaporated you’d think it had become air.
The death of air is to become fire. Now this one might actually be accurate, I don’t know enough about how fire works but I know that it is fueled by oxygen; whether or not the air “turns into fire” I don’t know, but certainly there is combustion and if there are any chemists in the audience you’ll know how wrong or right I am here but air might just actually undergo a chemical change and become fire through combustion.
But the accuracy of these ideas isn’t what makes these statements worthy of contemplation. We can’t fault Marcus for not being a modern scientist with a modern understanding of nature, but we can give him credit for noticing something pretty central, and what he’s spoken about a lot in the books we’ve read so far: the universal constant and necessity of change. Everything changes form, everything is part of a great cycle, and perhaps Marcus is the Roman Mufasa because he’s talking about the circle of life; the land becomes the sea, the water becomes the air, the air becomes fire, etc etc.
And when he turns to human death he’s asking us, or rather, he was reminding himself since this is a journal, to remember that we are part of that cycle and we have a natural destination as well. We will die and become the earth, or, if your’e like me and you think you’re going to get cremated and placed into a biourn, which I just think is the coolest idea, we become trees.
I have a friend, my flatmate actually, who is trying to start a business composting human bodies. And I think we would all have, initially, a negative reaction to that. “You mean you’re going to do to my grandmother what you do to a banana peel? That’s not very reverent!” And I think that’s a legit marketing concern for a company like that but WHY do we have that reaction? Are we different than a banana peel? Certainly while we are alive yes, but once we’re dead? We’re more similar than we aren’t. Composting human bodies so they can become the literal soil we plant trees or gardens in seems… to me anyway, somewhat more reverent than putting me in a box and having to visit a gravesite to say hello to me. A tree seems pretty cool when compared to that.
But I’m getting off topic. Life and death are cyclical, and we’re not just ALIVE, we’re a stage in a cycle and during that stage we, we humans, have this beautiful ability to made decisions and live a life and experience existence unlike any other animal experiences existence, and that’s the most important thing I think the first half of this meditation reminds us of.
Then there’s the second half:
“…and consider that we ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep, for even in sleep we seem to act and speak; and that we ought not, like children who learn from their parents, simply to act and speak as we have been taught.”
Wake up sheeple! I’m kidding. But yes, I love this bit. I’m sure someone has told you before that you were babbling nonsense in your sleep. Quite famously, in my house, my partner once asked me something while I was asleep and I got quite cross with her, telling her not to bother me because I was having tea with a minotaur.
Of course, and very unfortunately, I was not having tea with a minotaur, but I thought that I was. And this, I think, is what Marcus is getting at, he’s telling us not to mistake what is real for what is fantasy, what is inevitable for what is wished for, what is important and valuable for what is vapoury fame. Don’t go through life as if you were in a dream, go through life as if you were at a temporary point within a grand cycle and you’ve got limited time to leverage your power, your influence on the cosmopolis, your logos, before you exit this part of the cycle and enter the next… where you become the soil someone plants their tomatoes in.