Ancient ontocartography

by Arran James

Ask yourself, what is this thing in itself, by its own special constitution? What is it in substance, and in form, and in matter? What is its function in the world? For how long does it subsist? (8:11).

Survey the circling stars , as though yourself were in mid-course with them. Often picture the changing and rechanging dance of the elements. Visions of this kind purge away the dross of this life. (7:47).

All things are interwoven with one another, a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things; all being is one, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking creatures possess) and all truth is one- if, as we believe, there can be but one path to perfection for beings that are alike in kind and reason. (7:9).

The above are a few extracts from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I am struck by how Marcus is full of injunctions to himself that he map each particular being, its field of relations, and to bear in mind its ephemeral nature. In one of the meditations, he goes so far as to declare that even the sun is ephemeral. From this cosmological perspective, everything is. He is constantly commanding us to pay attention to the specificity of this thing before me now, this fellow human, this cosmos as a whole. He is also the one who is the most mindful of the fact that we arise from cosmic and terrestrial death, that we will be part of such death, and that from us something else will emerge. Everything is transversal, a particular specificity, bound to everything else. Everything is, as he says above, in “mid-course”, always being composed, recomposed, distributed and redistributed in accordance with the immanent ontogenetic principle “God”. For Marcus all maps are eventually road-maps, plotting our trajectory between conflagrations. This is essential Stoic doctrine- and is where Nietzsche would get the idea of the eternal return. The universe (a unity made up of multiplicity) is always mid-way between birth and death. We are strung between two great catastrophes, the life of the world itself, like that of the individual, a flourishing, beautiful death.