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.
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 Emperor’s diay tried his very best to be honest with himself and with others, and to treat his fellow human beings with the respect they cosmically deserve. He is nothing but frank and direct with himself; he is his own stern teacher and Superego.
Some bits are repetitive, in that there are things that Marcus Aurelius keeps reminding himself of over and over again: of his own mortality, first and foremost; of being ever rational; of his relative insignificance in view of time, space and the human multitudes; but also of the importance of maintaining mindfulness and humility while fulfilling his duties, or doing anything at all, for that matter. Above all he is concerned with occupying his rightful place in the order of things, both in the Universe and in Society. Presumably these were some of the things he struggled with most, or found hardest to implement consistently in his life.
Interestingly, there are many aphorisms strewn through the text, along with allusions to anecdotes or lines and characters from plays that illustrate a particular point: these Marcus Aurelius frequently does not elaborate upon and are merely there to serve as quick mnemonics for the larger lesson they remind him of. Some of these references are obscure, but others are to texts that have come down to us. That means it is important to find an edition with good footnotes! And my edition, edited and translated by Gregory Hays, was indeed wonderful. The translation really flowed: Hays clearly took pains to render the Emperor’s Greek into contemporary language. The footnotes and the explanatory introduction were great, as well.
“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.
Marcus Aurelius emphasizes several other themes in his notes on life known as the Meditations. Among them are the tenets that underlie the stoic philosophy that he learned from his teachers including a discussion of the importance of your duty both to your own nature and that of the whole universe. It is with these tenets in mind that we see him telling us to accept what is beyond our control (5.8) in his expression of the notion that freedom for man is possible only when he is indifferent to the his fate as decreed by nature. This is consistent with the view of Epictetus in his Encheiridion ( ). Both emphasize that this in the sense that the we are all a part of the whole of nature and recognition of that is necessary to achieve the good. The good which is always the moral good.
The importance of this is seldom clearer than when Aurelius notes the importance of focusing on the present, the "task at hand" if you will by exercising dispassionate justice in the following way:
"Vacating your mind from all its other thoughts. And you will achieve this vacation if you perform each action as if it were the last of your life: freed, that is, from all lack of aim, from all passion-led deviation from the ordinance of reason, from pretence, from love of self, from dissatisfaction with what fate has dealt you." (2.5)
It is acting like this, not in any morbid sense, but with a cheerfulness of mind, as described in the quote from Seneca above, that you will achieve the tranquility of being that is the ultimate form of happiness. But there is more than happiness in Stoicism and honestly that is not the primary goal of the stoic life.
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.
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.”
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.
And no rating because it doesn't really rate on the scale. It is what it is and the free ebook available from GR isn't great...looks like scanning issues. Not unreadable though, unless you despise King James era English, and this is pretty convoluted even for that. Reader beware.
Oh, I tried. Night after night I would try to digest a few more random thoughts from this stoic Emperor of Rome. I'm not a stoic for sure. Finally gave up about 2/3 through the book. Very few nuggets could I hold up as true in more own life. I rarely give up on a book. Just had to with this one.