on 22 November 2007
In Plato's Republic, Socrates discusses the possibility of a philosopher king; that is, a person who would rule in a way that is just, because their thoughts and desires are outgrowths of their philosophical ideologies. Socrates suggests that this would be the best of all possible rulers - and, of course, the implication is that Plato would be this greatest ruler, because the philosophy a ruler 'should' follow, was Plato's. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 A.D. until his death in 180 A.D. He was the last of the five great Emperors who ruled Rome during a period which Edward Gibbon, writing his magnificent The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, described as the time when the world was at its happiest and most prosperous. He was not, as far as anyone else knew, a philosopher - he was simply (and sufficiently) a proficient Emperor, an able ruler, a good statesmen. And yet, in those quiet moments of leisure when he was able to take off the mantle of Emperor, Marcus Aurelius composed some of the most important works of Stoic philosophy. A series of meditations, exercises for himself, admonitions to himself, exhortations of how to be a better person.
What is immediately clear about Aurelius' Meditations is that they were written for an intimate audience of one. There is no grandstanding or pompous declarations of power or influence. There are no revelations or secrets or negative comments about current affairs. Whatever Marcus Aurelius' thoughts on the world outside himself, we are left mostly in the dark for this work. Rather, what he has done - or aims to do - is to intimately examine himself, to highlight his flaws and to recognise, but not always praise, his positive qualities. Most importantly, the Meditations are just that - a collection of thoughts, concepts, ideas and moral positions which Aurelius wishes to follow at all times. It is a handbook to himself on how best to live his life.
Two strains of thought which run through almost every page of the Meditations is first, the responsibility of a person's actions, and second, the concept of death. In Book 5, Aurelius writes, 'Another does wrong. What is that to me? Let him see to it: he has his own disposition, his own action. I have now what universal nature wishes me to have now, and I do what my own nature wishes me to do now.' Personal responsibility is an important theme for Aurelius, but more than that, he requires a constant awareness within himself that while he is responsible for his own actions, he is not responsible for the actions of others, and should not let himself be affected by their bad deeds. He writes that if a man smells bad, it does no good to get angry. Rather, what should be done is to calmly inform the person, and then leave the matter in their hands. If they change and improve themselves, you have done your duty. If not, your duty has still been done - the fault remains with the other person. This concept of the self's responsibility for the self is an interesting one when taken into interactions with others. If we are to examine our feelings, does it really make sense for us to become angry at the folly of another? Surely, as Aurelius states, it is best simply to help them as much as we can, and then leave the choice of being angry or upset to them. What have we to be angry for? Nothing, if we live our lives the best way we can.
A second major thought is death. Aurelius reminds himself that death is something that will happen to everyone, and thus should not be feared. 'Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny - what fraction of that are you?' And again: 'How many who once rose to fame are now consigned to oblivion: and how many who sang their fame are long disappeared.' Marcus Aurelius writes to remind himself that fame, no matter how glorious, begins to fade the moment death takes you away - and sometimes before. He believed death to be either a cessation of thought, which meant it wouldn't matter to you once you were dead, or an alteration of consciousness (ie Heaven), which meant the current consciousness - your current life - would not matter then, either. Thus, the important thing to do with yourself is to be the best and most noble person you can be. 'The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.'
It is important to remember that the man who wrote these words was arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time. That he could rule the greatest Empire the world had yet seen, and still write with such modesty and grace, is something truly admirable. He calls for the moral life, the good life, and is constantly chastening himself to live the way he knows is best. As these works were most likely never intended for publication, they can and should be seen as Aurelius stripping himself of all physical and temporal difficulties to concern his mind purely and only with what is truly important. That he was able to explore himself with such honesty, and write with such clarity, is nothing short of astonishing. Each page contains short passages of great wisdom, alongside longer paragraphs of thought that tower above the carefully crafted citadel of morality which concerns most of the work.
The Penguin Classic edition of this work contains one hundred and thirty pages of notes, an index of names and an index of quotations, as well as a general index. These indexes offer the non-specialist reader a wealth of information regarding the scattered quotes and references that populate Aurelius' text. It is the notes section, however, that truly shines. Each of the twelve books of the Meditations are summarised and explained, and then the more difficult concepts and allusions are further detailed. Thus, a curious reader is able to read the explanation, while a scholar or student has, in the same book, detailed references and starting points for further research. Complimentary to that is a fine introduction by Diskin Clay, who gives an overview of Marcus Aurelius' life and times.
The Meditations is very short, at one hundred and twenty-two pages. Each book is roughly ten pages, with most of the writings being only a few lines. What this means is that it is a remarkably easy work to pick up and put down, and coupled with the directness and elegance of his writing, the Meditations becomes a novel that could easily serve as a companion for life. Marcus Aurelius' writing is not directed towards a race or class or gender or temperament, rather, it is directed inwards, at the mind and the soul, two fundamental aspects of humanity we all possess. It is somewhat trite to say that there is 'something for everything' within a work, but in the case of the Meditations, it is true. Read this book and find solace in the work of an elegant mind and a worthy outlook on life.
on 28 July 2010
There's an episode of Dad's Army where the English Captain Mainwaring turns out to be able to play the bagpipes. He explains his skill by revealing that he spent his two-week honeymoon in Scotland, and that there wasn't much else to do. Marcus Aurelius, who as Emperor of Rome was higher up the army ranks than Mainwaring, probably felt the same way about northern Germany, where he spent his time trying to defeat the barbarians. To pass the hours he scribbled down jottings and ideas about how to live a fulfilled life that eventually became Meditations, one of the most wonderful personal philosophies ever written.
The thoughts and ideas here are connected by Aurelius' interest in the Stoic philosophy, but they are not a narrative so the book can be opened at any page or read in any order as each paragraph is a single idea, observation or point he wished to make. Aurelius comes across as an incredibly sane, warm, open and tolerant individual and although he personally believes in a divine nature, an atheist can happily enjoy his writing.
The Stoics were interested in logic, physics and ethics. These terms didn't hold their current meanings so Logic meant closely observing the world and thinking carefully and deriving knowledge and opinions about what you have seen. Physics is essentially the idea that the universe has a force of nature running through it and there's a connectedness between all things. Finally Ethics is how to be happy, which to the stoics meant living in tune with the rest of nature. It all sounds rather new age and vague but Aurelius' genius is to boil this down to a practical formula for everyday living. It's rather as if he is in his tent cursing some piece of misfortune and then stops himself, considers his philosophy and how he should handle the problem and writes the solution down. So you might get something like "Never make light of a friend's rebuke", or "Never listen to gossip" followed by an explanation of the consequences and disbenefits. More often however a paragraph will be a mini essay on why a certain type of behaviour is good or bad for the individual. Some are very short such as, "Men exist for each other, then either improve them or put up with them" whilst others roll across a page or perhaps a little more.
There is repetition here and there and not everything is a golden nugget of truth but taken as a whole this is a remarkable work, and I don't believe that anyone would not have greater contentment and less stress if they followed the advice he gives. On the negative side he can sound a bit miserable about the world and give the impression that it is a constant struggle to exist, but I expect when you are fighting off German invaders every morning you begin to get somewhat glum.
This is something to keep by your bedside and dip into every few weeks or months. Highly recommended.
on 8 October 2010
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD121 - 80) was bot a Roman emperor and a philosopher, a rare combination, but a happy one, for he was one of a succession of Emperors, the Antonines, that made the age a golden age to live in.'
In his 'meditations' Marcus pens great nuggets of philosophical thinking that apply to modern day times as much as in his hey day. This is certainly not heavy reading of philosophical treatises. Written in clear prose for the layman to understand this book as the title suggests is Marcus meditations on various matters of life.
This is his thoughts put to paper on how to live a good life, a better, more fulfilling and fruitful life, one that we can all follow if we read this book. It is a book that demands to be read slowly, mainly broken in to short paragraphs, it pays the reader to really allow the words to sink in and imbibe the philosophical teachings Marcus wishes to impart to the reader.
This is the sort of book that if read slowly, calmly and in quiet contemplation can actually effect change in your life, far more than the Pop self-help culture currently on the market, in fact it would be fair to say the self help culture plagiarised the works of the ancient philosophers and added their own 20th century spin.
If you are looking for an easy read but that has real depth if taken slowly, this is the book for you. Even reading this book quickly only once will have an impact on you, give it the time it deserves and you will feel yourself grow in both wisdom and insight to many of lifes intricate problems.
on 30 July 2010
Familiar with several editions of this over 20 years or so.
This this particular and fairly recent edition has a good introduction, excellent notes with cross-referencing, and a very useful index of key words, concepts and ideas.
The Meditations still has, I believe, something to offer us, more in the way of agenda setting and consequent centred reflection but mainly it's of 'academic' interest.Actually, there is a lot about Marcus Aurelius I plain dislike, although, to be fair, his own self deprecation does work to dilute any assumed sense of authority, and his own confessed fallibility does make him more human.