Andre-Jean Voelke-Commentary Upon Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Health Of The World & Health Of The Individual’

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Zeus with Cornucopia. This Cthonic aspect of Zeus holds in his left hand the Cornucopia around which ascends the Agathodaimon Dragon (Drakontas), while with his right hand offers a libation (sponde) with a Patera (phiale). Ceramic. Source: @allsoulst


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are gleans from Andre-Jean Voelke’s study, ‘Philosophy as Soul Therapy’ (La Philosophie comme thérapie de l’âme), Fribourg University Press, 1993. From chapter 6, ‘Health of the world, health of the individual, Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Thoughts’ V-8, pages 92 to 98. HYGEIA’s working English translation from the original French. It is a shame that such an interesting scholar hasn’t been properly translated in English…English or any other language. Walls, walls, walls; when will we be breaking the walls? He is not, sadly, the only one. Wisdom has no frontiers. Scientific scholarship and scientific vulgarization are meant to be shared extensively worldwide: It is a democratic duty.


Quote: V-8, (1)Just as people say, ‘Asclepius prescribed for someone horse- riding or cold baths or walking barefoot’, so we could say this: ‘The nature of the whole has prescribed for him sickness or disability or loss or something else of that kind.’ (2) In the first case, ‘prescribed’ means something like ‘ordered this for him as appropriate for his health’, and in the second too what happens to each person has been ordered as being in some sense appropriate for his destiny.’

From a common saying ascribing to Asclepius a medical prescription, in the sense that it is appropriate to the state of health of the individual, the text switch to a paradoxical expression assimilating a disease or a threat to the corporal integrity as a treatment universal nature prescribes to the individual, because it is line with fate. Then he uses another saying to compare the manner events ‘fit’ (sumbainein) to the manner stones ‘fit’ when they are fitted between others to form a wall or a pyramid. This form of speach is rooted upon the origin of the participle ‘to sumbainon’ (the event) to read the affirmation that is ’fit with’(sumbainein) the individual to whom ‘it happens’. Further on, Marcus Aurelius induces a similar meaning to a phrase that ‘even lay people could understand’:

V-8, (5) ‘Even completely un- philosophical people understand what I mean; they say, ‘that was sent to him’; (6) what was sent to him was also prescribed for him.

We do not see what is the subject of the verbal form ‘epheren’ (brought) in the popular expression used by the author. Context allows us to think that for him it is about universal fate, mentioned two sentences above. We can, also, connect this paragraph with ‘Thoughts’-XII-1,3: ‘Love the lot given to you: as nature brings it to you, in the same manner it brings you to it.’, and admit that this subject also identifies to the ‘common nature’ mentioned a bit further. The fulfillment of what nature ‘has decided’ is the fruit of an inevitable sequence of causes which is no other than fate. Further on, Zeus, then nature, are the subjects of the same verbal form used in a similar manner and associated through a word play to the composite form ‘sunepheren’ (was useful):

V-8, (11): ’He (Zeus) would not have sent this to anyone, if it did not benefit the whole, any more than any nature you can mention sends anything which is not appropriate for what is governed by that nature.

The repeated use of common sayings and to word plays based on etymology would need a proper study beyond the scope of our present work. It is in fact a stylistic characteristic linked to an effort aiming to bring the common language of lay people to express ‘a stoic vision of the world’. Such an effort assumes that the terms and the statements of common language could contain, besides their immediate meaning, ‘an extra of implicit meaning’ that is being let ‘understood’ or ‘guessed. This linguistic property called ‘paremphasis’ or ‘sunemphasis’ was taken as a subject of study by Chrysippus of Soli in his time. As we will see further on, Marcus Aurelius is definitely playing upon the ‘co-signification’ phenomenon to interpret lay sayings in a meaning that makes them the expression of a Stoic thought.

In applying to Zeus, considered as the all-mighty organizing power, to a law valid for any kind of ‘nature’, Marcus Aurelius clearly indicates that Zeus is for him, as for the whole stoic tradition, a personification of common or universal nature. This divine figure rarely appears in the ‘Thoughts’ (Meditations). Here its mention is drawn probably because of the presence of Asclepius at the beginning of the text: To the god who rules over physical health echoes the god who rules upon ‘the health of the world’.

In order to interpret the expression, ‘Health of the World’, we need first to notice that it is connected to the formula, ‘the fair path and success of Zeus’ (ten tou Dios euodian kai euphragian). It obviously characterizes the order divine action tends to establish in the world, order that is at the same time the ‘fulfillment’ of what nature has decided, the goal it achieves ‘flowing well’ (eudousei, VII-7,1). But in conformity with Marcus Aurelius’ injunction: ‘We need to follow ‘word to word’ what is being said…and beware to what is being implied’ (VII-4), it matters to precise the meaning of the notion of health in line with the tradition that inspires him.

In agreement with a tradition that goes way back to Alcmeon of Croton (24b4 DK) and to which, according to Galen, also gathers Stoics like Zeno and Chrysippus together with Plato and Aristotle as well, they define health as a moderate combination (eukrasia, temperatio), a proportion (summetria) of the four elements-hot and cold, humid and dry. In line with this analogy of this disposition of the body, they admit the existence of the health of the soul, which consist in a ‘fair composition’ (eukrasia), a balance of judgements in the soul. This very doctrine explains how can Marcus Aurelius transpose metaphorically the word ‘health’ up to the cosmic level. In V-8,4 we read:

V-8,4 ‘In the absolute, there is but one harmony of all things; and, accordingly, the physical world is composed of the sum of all bodies in order to reach its plenitude (sumpleroutai) as a body in its singularity, likewise, fate is composed of the sum of all the causes in order to reach its plenitude, as a cause in its singularity.’

It is this harmonious and unique plenitude, in all its singularity, born out of a fair combination of all the bodies that make up the world and of all the causes at work in its becoming that is here called, ‘Health of the World’. We find here in such a metaphor the idea of a well assorted combination, of an agreement of components that balances themselves, relevant to the health of the body as to the health of the soul as well.

This idea, well documented during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, appears in particular in a most interesting writing that serves our topic, because, alike Marcus Aurelius, it uses a physician language to talk about the world. It is the pseudo-Heraclitus, mentioning the ‘treatment of the sick world’ (kamnontos kosmou therapeia): ‘God heals (iatreuei) the great bodies that make the world. He equalizes what in them lacks measure.

But for Marcus Aurelius, the health of the world is not reduced to this physical balance between the ‘great bodies’. In order to reach full plenitude, complete fulfilment, it must embrace as an integral part ‘everything that happens’, even individual disease. We could be led to think, at first glance, that without being willed for itself by Zeus, happens by ‘way of consequence’ a necessary sequence of the cosmic order. This doctrine, entertained by Chrysippus, seems to be in agreement with other ‘Thoughts’ of Marcus Aurelius, as they use this type of explanation to report of the negative aspects of the world. (for instance, VI-36,2-3). But, in the text we are analyzing, the disease of the individual has no epiphenomenal status: It is ‘prescribed’ by Zeus or by nature as an event useful for the Whole. On this point, Marcus Aurelius joins Seneca: ‘What seems to be detrimental to us leads to the preservation of the Whole and is part of the events that ensure the flow of the world and the fulfillment of its function.’ (Seneca, Letter 74, paragraph 20).

The most satisfying explanation of this thesis consists probably in admitting that disease forms with health a couple of contraries necessary to the harmony of the Whole and are integral parts for this reason in the plan of the Supreme Ruler, like are, according to Epictetus, summer and winter, profusion and scarcity, virtue and vice.

It matters to remind us here of a well-known aspect of the stoic cosmology: the affirmation that the world is a living being. This point of doctrine does not appear in V-8, but other ‘Thoughts’ highlight it openly, for instance IV-40: ‘Without cease consider the world as unique living being having a unique substance (ousia) and a unique soul.’ If the world is part of the living beings, we can fairly speak not only of its health, but also of its salvation like Marcus Aurelius does in a paragraph where he admonishes his soul to accept as beneficial ‘everything the gods will give in the future for the sake (soteria) of the perfect living, just and beautiful, who gives birth to all things, maintain them together, gathers them and embraces them as they dissolve to give birth to similar others’. (X-1,3). We will notice that the mention of the world’s sake is linked, as its health as well, to the concern of bringing individuals to greet favorably coming events.


Phoenicia, Marathos. Dated CY 142 (106/7BC). Obverse: Laureate head of Zeus right. Reverse: Double cornucopia; date to right. References: HGC 10, 195. Size: 22mm, 8.81g. Picture:



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