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This is from Book 2, Meditation 12 (Maxwell Staniforth's translation):

We should apprehend, too, the nature of death; and that if only it be steadily contemplated, and the fancies we associate with it be mentally dissected, it will soon come to be thought of as no more than a process of nature (and only children are scared by a natural process) – or rather, something more than a mere process, a positive contribution to nature’s well-being. Also we can learn how man has contact with God, and with which part of himself this is maintained, and how that part fares after its removal hence.

What does he mean by God? And how do we learn to come in contact with her?

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    The text uses the Greek word for "god". In the Greek language the noun Θεός is a male god, not a female god. The word does not name a specific god. IMO Marcus Aurelius uses the general god-term from Stoicism.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 29 at 23:11

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Carl Jung thought that before we became too civilized, every one of us lived partly in "our" world, and partly in the spiritual world:

"People speak of belief [in God] when they have lost knowledge... The naive primitive doesn't be­lieve, he knows, because the inner experience rightly means as much to him as the outer... He lives in one world, whereas we live only in one half and merely believe in the other or not at all."

The Marcus Aurelius' quote appears to reflect this "naive primitive" perspective. He wonders, through which part of ourselves (of our psyche?) we are connected to heaven/God (Θεός); how that part functions, and whether -- and to what extent -- it might transcend the death of the body.

To this Carl Jung seems to offer at least a partial answer. Marcus Aurelius knew little, if anything, about our subconscious/unconscious. Carl Jung was very well aware of it, and he suggested that it is this hidden part of our psyche that is responsible, as a part of our "inner experience", for our connection to the spiritual world (the collective unconscious).

Update: Finally, I'd like to mention that many poets and writers spoke about this kind of a double life -- the conscious and the unconscious -- that we humans appear to live. Here is a quote from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy:

"There are two sides to each man's life – his personal life, which is the more free the more distractions it affords; and his unconscious hive life, in which he unwittingly follows a prescribed path."

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The passage exemplifies the Stoic conception of death. While Stoicism was a diverse philosophical school, there are some principal unifying themes and views handed down from generation to generation. Crucially, Stoicism advises also a philosophical stance and path towards human's life and world. Hence, what Marcus Aurelius says ought to be understood from a philosophical perspective as expressed in Stoic terminology.

Since Stoic writings offer guidance for various parts of a socially and individually harmonious and meaningful life, they have broader readership than many other schools of thought have. In many cases, the original writings are translated interpretatively in consideration of such guidance. The original passage is as follows (bold added to the original and the corresponding words in the translation):

Πῶς πάντα ταχέως ἐναφανίζεται, τῷ μὲν κόσμῳ αὐτὰ τὰ σώματα, τῷ δὲ αἰῶνι αἱ μνῆμαι αὐτῶν. οἶά ἐστι τὰ αἰσθητὰ πάντα καὶ μάλιστα τὰ ἡδονῇ δελεάζοντα ἢ τῷ πόνῳ φοβοῦντα ἢ τῷ τύφῳ διαβεβοημένα: πῶς εὐτελῆ καὶ εὐκαταφρόνητα καὶ ῥυπαρὰ καὶ εὔφθαρτα καὶ νεκρά, νοερᾶς δυνάμεως ἐφιστάναι. τί εἰσιν οὗτοι, ὧν αἱ ὑπολήψεις καὶ αἱ φωναὶ τὴν εὐδοξίαν παρέχουσι. τί ἐστι τὸ ἀποθανεῖν, καὶ ὅτι, ἐάν τις αὐτὸ μόνον ἴδῃ καὶ τῷ μερισμῷ τῆς ἐννοίας διαλύσῃ τὰ ἐμφανταζόμενα αὐτῷ, οὐκέτι ἄλλο τι ὑπολήψεται αὐτὸ εἶναι ἢ φύσεως ἔργον: φύσεως δὲ ἔργον εἴ τις φοβεῖται, παιδίον ἐστί: τοῦτο μέντοι οὐ μόνον φύσεως ἔργον ἐστίν, ἀλλὰ καὶ συμφέρον αὐτῇ. πῶς ἅπτεται θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος καὶ κατὰ τί ἑαυτοῦ μέρος καὶ ὅταν πῶς ἔχῃ διακέηται τὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τοῦτο μόριον.

An almost literal translation is given by Charles Haines as (published in Loeb Library):

How quickly all things vanish away, in the Universe their actual bodies, and the remembrance of them in Eternity, and of what character are all objects of sense, and particularly those that entice us with pleasure or terrify us with pain or are acclaimed by vanity —how worthless and despicable and unclean and ephemeral and dead!—this is for our faculty of intelligence to apprehend; as also what they really are whose conceptions and whose voices award renown; what it is to die, and that if a man look at death in itself, and with the analysis of reason strip it of its phantom terrors, no longer will he conceive it to be aught but a function of Nature, but if a man be frightened by a function of Nature, he is childish; and this is not only Nature's function but her welfare; —and how man is in touch with God and with what part of himself, and in what disposition of this portion of the man.

It is important to note that theos (θεός: god), as a Stoic term, differs from familiar theological and metaphysical concepts found in other philosophical traditions or religions. For Stoics, physis (φύσις: nature) consists of a passive principle hyle (ὕλη: matter) and an active principle theos which is understood as a rational and benevolent entity that that brings order of the divine reason to the chaos of the material world. The Stoic God is not a separate entity from nature, on the contrary, it is the very essence underlying and maintaining the rational order of the cosmos. It is a governing and ordering force of the cosmos.

Thus, Stoicism rejects both the ancient anthropomorphic characteristics and a parallelism to the conception of God in the Abrahamic religions. In order to avoid confusion, some translators prefer such words as “deity” instead of “God,” or even, assimilate it to nature. Some others retain it, but with a lowercase “g.”

Notice that this conception of God is intimately tied to the idea of Logos (λόγος). The Stoic Logos is often described as an immanent and rational principle, providing coherence and structure to the cosmos. The connection between Logos and Theos reflects the Stoic understanding of a rational, ordered, and purposeful universe.

A Stoic ideal for us is to live in harmony with and to act in accordance with nature. We possess the ability to participate in the universal order and to become theoeides (θεοειδής: godlike). The seeds of this ideal in similar term is already manifest in Plato's thought. In the dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates says ([176a])

But it is impossible that evils should be done away with, Theodorus, for there must always be something opposed to the good; and they cannot have their place among the gods, but must inevitably hover about mortal nature and this earth. Therefore we ought to try to escape from earth to the dwelling of the gods as quickly as we can [176b] and to escape is to become like God [ὁμοίωσις θεῷ], so far as this is possible; and to become like God is to become righteous and holy and wise.

Grasping the cosmic order and striving to achieve godlikeness foster acceptance of the natural cycle of life and death with equanimity. Death, a natural part of the cosmic order, is not to be feared but viewed and internalised as a certain aspect of existence.

Death is not an annihilation, but a transition, a return to the elements of nature from which man was originated. Thus, death is a reunion with this source; it is, as it were, a union as well as a communion with the Stoic God.

So far we have made some sense of the passage, however, the last sentence of the passage appears cryptic and detached from the others. First, we should keep in mind that these are the private notes Marcus Aurelius put down for his own use. So, that sentence should be regarded as an instruction to reflect on further for and by himself and a bridge to his next passage.

According to the Stoic tradition, death separates the soul from the body. Having considered the event of death through which the body withers away, evidently, Marcus Aurelius turns his attention to the soul. What he refers to as part and portion (μέρος and μόριον) must be not the bodily organs to get in touch with the Stoic God, but the constituents (or faculties) of the soul.

That brings us the Stoic views of mind and soul. The Stoics held a very interesting monistic perspective whose reconstruction and explication is highly controversial for their commentators. A convenient starting source is Scott Rubarth's IEP article Stoic Philosophy of Mind.

Whatever Marcus Aurelius' own response to his instruction might have been, it must be linked to the following passage in which he stresses that one need only attend the daimon (δαίμων: divine spirit) within oneself, and truly care for it.

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  • Thank you for this very well thought and written out explanation. There is much here for me to mull over. My initial impressions--it's as if Nature includes a rational, purposeful element, but then how can Nature be harmonious if it includes evil and begs fortranscendence. Is this God a part of nature or beyond it? I guess the Creator is always both a part of and apart from his creation?
    – Gerry
    Jan 31 at 6:58
  • There is no beginning as a creation, nor a foretold end. The Stoics inclined to conceive the progression of the cosmic order as cyclic. God may be said to be to the universe as the soul is to the body (in a very specific sense, both God and soul were corporeal for the Stoics). Whatever is called evil is human's wrong-doing. In the personal case of Marcus Aurelius, such cosmological issues are not even worth contemplation. Actually, he did not see an incoherence between the Stoic conception of God and being conformist about the Greco-Roman polytheistic theology. Jan 31 at 16:22
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It's phrased quite a bit differently in other translations. Here, for instance, is Hutchenson and Moore:

In like manner, as to the whole series of actions, which is life; if it ends in its season, it suffers no ill by ceasing; nor is the person, who thus finishes his series, in any bad state. The season and the term is limited by nature; sometimes even by your own, as in old age; but, always by the nature of the whole. ’Tis by the changes of its several parts, that the universe still remains new, and in its bloom. Now, that is always good and seasonable, which is advantageous to the whole. The ceasing of life cannot be evil to individuals; for, it has no turpitude in it; since it is not in our power; nor is there any thing unsociable in it. Nay, ’tis good; since ’tis seasonable to the whole, and advantageous, and concurring with the order of the whole. Thus, too, is he led by God, who goes the same way with God, and that by his own inclination.

The larger context, in either translation, makes it clear that this statement is informed by Greek idealism, and the contact with God is through the mind/soul/spirit. Earlier parts of this same Meditation talk about how God is pure intellect, but human beings have three parts, flesh, animal life-force and intellect. The statement in question expresses the idea that the human intellect is freed from the human body at death, and thus--willingly--joins the pure intellect that is God. There's echoes of the Socratic embrace of death depicted in Plato's Apology.

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