A new translation, the first in thirty-five years, of one of the most influential and admired books of the ages, the reflections of Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome 161-180 A.D., few books have meant as much to as many as Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. It remains a life-enhancing work of the basics of Stoic doctrine, Aurelius's life and career, the recurring themes and structure of the work's ongoing influence.
The Meditations are, as presented by Hays in his very helpful introduction, best understood as the private spiritual exercises of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Hays' introduction lays out the various philosophic strains that shaped Marcus Aurelius' thinking, and fits the work into the broader cultural context of late Roman attitudes towards life, philosophy, and religion. The translation is fluid and incisive, making the thoughts come alive.
The Mediations will reward periodic rereading. The author spirals obsessively around a handful of philosophical themes: that everything we know, love, or hate is transient and will pass away; that freedom comes from accepting that most of the world - everything other than one's own choices about how to behave -- ultimately lies beyond one's control; that virtue is rooted in self-discipline. For most of us, there's a lot more to life than this, but as he works and reworks his themes, Marcus Aurelius reveals new angles or insights that give the Meditations a rich depth. Throughout, I kept wondering, with his focus on transience, self-discipline, and compassion towards others, what Marcus Aurelius would have made of Buddhism.
Underlying its wisdom, the Meditations carries two striking internal tensions. The first may simply reflect the gap between the author's intent - personal spiritual exercises -- and the book's acquired status as a work for the ages. Marcus Aurelius constantly suggests that anyone in his audience can follow his advice and be free. On the other hand, the author's position -- a patriarch among patriarchs -- is hardly universal. Only for a person with great privilege could the problem of suffering look so manageable through simple willpower. This tension subsides if Marcus Aurelius really wrote for himself alone.
The other major tension doesn't depend on the intended audience: Marcus Aurelius repeatedly orders the reader both to live in the present, and to be strategic - which necessarily implies thinking several steps ahead. That contradiction isn't unique to the Meditations; it's a challenge for all philosophic or religious systems that affirm transcendent values while also encouraging followers to engage and shape the world. While the tension is not resolved (can it ever be?), it gives the Meditations a realistic, pragmatic feel.
On the whole I think that the bad press that Stoic philosophy gets is undeserved. The message this book gives is generally positive, and if everyone took notice of it then the world would be a more pleasant place. That isn't to say that it is all correct though, and what a lot of it comes down to is sticking one's head in the sand, and accepting the "order of the universe", or fate. This does do a good job of promoting the virtues of tolerance, and being content with your lot, though, and this is not a bad thing per se.
This edition is the one translated straight from an ancient greek manuscript, in the 17th Century, and so the language retains some of the antiquated style you would expect from a text originally written over 1800 years ago.
I would reccomend this book to those who think they may be interested in it, but it is probably more of one to dip into, than to read straight through. This is for a couple of reasons, one being that it can seem a bit repetitive, and the other bieng that you may find it hard to concentrate on, as some of the sentences are inarticulately long.
The Meditations aren’t really written for an audience, and this translation is a little stilted. But what you can tell is that Marcus Aurelius is trying to reflect upon a rather interesting life. There are times when he is contented in good memories and times when the ennui of his stoic life gets to him. But the overall message is to live a good life (“Death hangs over you: while you live, and while you may, be good”) and try not to be too overly swayed by things outside of one’s control. “It is not right to vex ourselves at things,” he says, “for they care not about it.”
In the end, Marcus Aurelius’s message is both honorable and interesting. The writing takes a little getting used to, so it would behoove readers to find a good translation. It is, however, a rather good beginning look into stoicism and its effectiveness in the proper hands. Marcus Aurelius, when set against the likes of Nero and Domitian, rules in the vein of a philosopher king and tries desperately to do right by his people. All in all, a refreshing and intellectual book.
A few favorite lines:
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”
“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”
Three Key Takeaway Lessons from Meditations
- “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
- People will always do awful things but we are only responsible our own virtue.
- We will die, and we ought not waste our lives being distressed. We should focus on doing good for others with the unknowable amount of time we have left to live. To make this a part of our lives we must reflect regularly on the fact that we will die.
The Meditations were written in Greek with a view to practical application of Stoic precepts.
Here’s a snippet of that quote:
You will never be remarkable for quick-wittedness. Be it so, then; yet there are still a host of other qualities whereof you cannot say, 'I have no bent for them.' Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety.
It’s worth mentioning that I have questions about his views on slavery and think he may have been a misogynist, but also that every single “you” in this text was addressed to himself. Apparently this masterful philosopher and emperor struggled with certain concepts a lot and attempted to steer his mind to better thoughts. It’s really commendable. I doubt my own ‘notes to self’ would be as compelling.
I’ve heard it from several readers, the Penguin Great Ideas edition is really good. I marked that sucker up, and despite a slow and rocky beginning find myself thinking often of things that Marcus has said and wanting to re-read and share things with everyone. We disagree on a lot, but still, I’d love to hang out with that dude.
"You don't mind if I call you Marcus, do you?" I’ll say when I drop in to have a beer in his courtyard, put my feet up on the furniture and annoy the shit out of him.
I'm really glad I read it.