A Meditation on Aurelius, Part 1

Today, a selection from Book III of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

“We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion’s eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things–though they are far from being beautiful, if a man should examine them severally–still, because they are consequent upon the things which are formed by nature, help to adorn them, and they please the mind; so that if a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure. And so he will see even the real gaping jaws of wild beasts with no less pleasure than those which painters and sculptors show by imitation; and in an old woman and an old man he will be able to see a certain maturity and comeliness; and the attractive loveliness of young persons he will be able to look on with chaste eyes; and many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but to him only who has become truly familiar with nature and her works.”

There are two points we can draw reflecting on this passage. The first we will touch on today, the second in a later post.

First, ask yourself: why can a tragedy be beautiful? Some of our most beautiful stories are tragedies. I think tragedy plumbs depths via negativa — for tragedy to be tragic, it has be be of grave consequence — obviously, this puts us in touch with gravity.

But more to the Aurelius’ point: tragedy is, I think, “consequent upon the things which are formed by nature.” While Aurelius means one thing by this, I think we might read this in another, equally edifying way: tragedy’s power depends upon an idea of what is good, true, beautiful, unspoilt, nature. It relies on a sense of not only how else things could have been, but of how else things should have been. The beauty of tragedy is grounded in and derived from the beauty of the comedy. If the the tragedies of the damned in Dante’s Inferno struck us as perfectly normal and desirable, we wouldn’t need the Paradiso. But the power of the their tragedies depends on there being a Paradiso they missed. If we had no sense for how things ought to be, if we were completely desensitized by the evil of our world, Inferno wouldn’t be literature — it’d be a newspaper. In other words, if you’ve been so numbed by evil, what faculty do you have for experiencing the beauty of tragedy?

But the Inferno is something we recognize as having artistic merit, something that, insofar as it works as story and poetry, gives us pleasure (not in the graphic evil portrayed, mind you, but in the genius of portrayal). And so, we must have some grounds for recognizing the good in something so rife with evil. Another way to think of this: you can only recognize a hole if there is some sense of what is around the hole.

In the same way, the tragic can be beautiful not only because we are so familiar with it in hac lacrimarum valle, but because of our innate sensibility, the sense that there is such a thing as is right, good, and true, is the very faculty by which we sense the beautiful.

Thus, in tragedy no less than in comedy, we ought to take great hope, and worry about those who don’t see beauty in tragedy, who aren’t greatly moved by Hamlet’s death.

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