Friday, December 11, 2015

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I accessed  several translations of this work during my recent reading of it. I read the Gregory Hays Translation from cover to cover. The below quotes are from that translation.


Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a work that has been renowned for centuries. The book consists of the philosophical musings of the famous Roman emperor.

I am no expert on ancient philosophy. However, several sources, including Gregory Hays’s introduction to his translation, indicate that Aurelius draw from the ideas of multiple schools of philosophy, but borrowed primarily from the Stoic school when creating this work.

The philosophy in this work is not complex. Most of the text is a straightforward and insightful exposition of Aurelius’s version of the Stoic thought system.

The author lays out certain basic precepts for a fulfilling life. First, he urges that one view and assess the world as rationally and unbiased as possible. Next, he consoles the reader not to allow painful events, life’s troubles or malicious people, to push one’s mind into the realm of negative emotions such as anger, resentment or sadness. He urges the reader to act and think rationally and ethically, no matter what external events bring. The reader is advised to control what he or she can control and not worry unduly about that which he or she cannot.  The author explains that a godlike force is guiding the Universe and all events are leading to a universal form of good. Thus, it makes no sense to lament or complain about so called “bad things.”

He writes,

“Joy for humans lies in human actions. Human actions: kindness to others, contempt for the senses, the interrogation of appearances, observation of nature and of events in nature. “

There is a sense of fatalism inherent this work. Aurelius repeatedly reminds us that everyone must die,

“Augustus’s court: his wife, his daughter, his grandsons, his stepsons, his sister, Agrippa, the relatives, servants, friends, Areius, Maecenas, the doctors, the sacrificial  priests … the whole court, dead. “

Since death is inevitable and a natural part of change, Aurelius argues that it only makes sense to peacefully accept the end of life.

One question that arises when reading this work for me: does it really rise to the level of greatness in line with the acclaim that it has received over the centuries?  As I alluded to above, my understanding is that the philosophical elements within this work are not original. In his introduction to the his translation, Gregory Hays writes

“it contains little or nothing that is original. It suggests not a mind recording new perceptions or experimenting with new arguments, but one obsessively repeating and reframing ideas long familiar but imperfectly absorbed. “

At times, the writing seems to be profound. At other times, it seems almost to be string of platitudes.

Can what is essentially a summary of a certain philosophic school be considered essential or a great work?

At the very least, due to its influence, this is an important historical and cultural book. Furthermore, the writing is always interesting. More so, it is often a joy to read.

There is something else that began to dawn upon me as I read this work. It seems extraordinarily modern. Marcus Aurelius’ advocacy of finding an inner calm, of keeping one’s mind, as well as one’s values, separate from the outside world, as well as many other insights at times sound like something out a modern self-help book, but perhaps the greatest self-help book ever written. At least in regards to how he presents his message, it seems that the ancient emperor still has something to say that is very relevant to our modern times.

 Yet, despite the above-mentioned virtues, the question still remains. Does this work stand up well to the works of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, et al? Due to its lack of originality and lack of complexity, it would be a hard sell to contend that Aurelius reaches the level of history’s great thinkers. Yet, this is still a very valuable tome. Though perhaps not all that novel, it is an eloquent exposition of stoic and related beliefs. Furthermore, if one is inclined to accept any part of this belief system, this book serves as a great motivator and a guide to self-improvement. Though I reject most of the metaphysics contained here, particularly the part about every event in the Universe leading to good, I find value in this work as a blueprint in finding an inner and outer calm not affected by external events. Thus, while perhaps a bit overrated over time, this work is well worth the read.

31 comments:

Hibernators Library said...

Interesting that you say that this is a surprisingly modern book. I guess that's why some books are classics is because you can see meaning no matter when and where you are. That is true wisdom and beauty there. I will certainly put this on my to-read list. Thanks for the review.

ebookclassics said...

I had no idea Marcus Aurelius was also a writer. But I can see how someone in his position may need an outlet for sorting through these kinds of thoughts and emotions, the events he witnessed and people he knew, to arrive at a set of values and morals to abide by.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I found that much of the ideas presented here seemed to feel commentary when compared to other works of antiquity.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CJ - Though I only know a fair amount about his rule, he seemed to be a very enlightened leader. That is reflected in this work.

Gently Mad said...

Thanks for an interesting review. I need to see if I have a copy of Marcus Aurelius around and what translation it is. If I don't find a copy I need to buy a copy. First I want to read up on the best translations and see which to buy. Sometimes like to read different translations for comparison.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I appreciate the intro to Meditations. The ideas you present here from the book sound practical and modern. I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I will keep it in mind for future reading.

Maria Behar said...

Superb review as always, Brian!

I have only a cursory knowledge of Stoic philosophy, but it seems that, at the very least, Aurelius's work offers a concise summary of it. I wonder, since you've read the book, whether the author actually references any Stoic philosopher by name. I also wonder whether he was only subliminally aware that he had actually been influenced by this school of philosophy. Perhaps he thought these philosophical observations were entirely his own.

From your own summary of the contents of this book, it does indeed sound very modern, and very much in line with the advice given in self-help books. I wonder if any contemporary self-help authors have in turn been influenced by Aurelius.

I agree that this book should not be placed on a par with the works of Plato and Aristotle, although it's still a wortwhile read.

As for Aurelius's assertion that all events in the universe are leading toward good, it reminds me of the metaphysical school known as New Thought, which itself has had such a huge influence on the New Age movement.

Thanks for your thoughts! : )

James said...

You have once again penned an excellent commentary that displays a thoughtful take on an important book. While Marcus Aurelius meditated on death and life, goodness and beauty, and other issues and I believe his overriding serenity in the face of the tumult he dealt with everyday came through these notes. That is a valuable lesson that he bequeathed to us.

I agree with you that he is still relevant in many ways for those who choose to think about their actions and beliefs. It is living your life in ways that he outlines in his meditations, with a cheerfulness of mind, that you may hope to achieve the tranquility of being that is the ultimate form of happiness.

thecuecard said...

Aurelius's thoughts indeed seem pretty modern like self-help as you note. It's pretty interesting that he came up with ideas about how to live life like these -- as Ancient Rome seemed like such a ruthless place. Maybe his philosophy assuaged what he saw around him ? Maybe they aspired to the Gods or whatnot.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Translations are so important. Personally I found the Gregory Hays translation to be very accessible and understandable. On the other hand, it lacked the grandness and power of some of the older translations and in my opinion relies too much on colloquial language and terms.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed, unlike some other philosophical works, there is a lot practicality here.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

All the points that you brought up illustrate just how relevant this ancient text is to folks who are alive today.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The ancient Romans dis seem so brutal and in a way all the reason and temperance found in this work seem out of place.

On the other hand in many ways Rome may have been less brutal and savage then much of the rest of the world was. They really put a lot of thought into ethics and it seems that some Romans really did try to live by them.

From what I know about Marcus Aurelius rule, he was about as enlightened as an ancient ruler could have been.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Though I do not think that he mentioned any of the Stoics much, if at all, directly by name, according to the essay by Gregory Hays as well as some other sources, there are direct reference here to the philosophy of the other stoics. Hays even compares some quotations in this work to the quotations of several of the stoics.

It would be interesting to know if any of the folks who write self help or New Age books have read this work and if so what they think about it.

Maria Behar said...

You're very welcome!

I think I'll be dong some Googling on the Stoics and Marcus Aurelius, as well as on how they are related. This is obviously a very interesting work, especially n light of the fact that an emperor -- a political figure -- wrote it. Now I am reminded of Dag Hammarskjöld and his famous book, "Markings". I think there might be some similarities between the two works, as both are philosophical in nature, and both were written by men who were very much involved in a political environment. Hammarskjöld's book is also more spiritual. As you probably know, he was the second Secretary General of the UN.

As for New Age authors, many of them, like Louise Hay, and the late Wayne Dyer, were very probably influenced by Stoic philosophy, to some extent.

I have placed Aurelius's "Meditations" on my TBR list, where it should have been all along. And I also want to re-read "Markings" properly. I only skimmed certain sections, years ago.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I never read Hammarskjöld's Markings. I Googled it and it looks to be a very worthy read. I can see how this work reminds you of his. Both men were so involved in world events in their own times.


I actually read a few Wayne Dyer books a long time ago. I agree that he was very influenced by the Stoics.


If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Tracy Terry said...

Surprised by your reassurances that this is a modern read, the text straightforward and what sounds like as relevant today. Marcus sounds like a very wise man indeed.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy In some ways it seems modern. while I think that it is full of insights that will be useful to the modern reader, this is still almost 2000 years old:)

Sharon Henning said...

I've been looking at different editions of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. You like the Hays translation, so I'm going to try that. I also saw that his work is included in the famous "Five Foot Shelf" of Harvard classics. I'd like to buy that but I'm trying to find out which translation they used. You or someone else I recently read said that one should read a different translation of Aurelius every year.

As far as his originality goes. I'll have to read a lot more ancient philosophers before I can even begin to tackle that question. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I really liked the Hays translation but as I noted above I thought that it had its shortcomings.

I did rely on the opinions of others as to the originality of this work. However, the essay's that I read on the issue did make a strong case.

HKatz said...

"Next, he consoles the reader not to allow painful events, life’s troubles or malicious people, to push one’s mind into the realm of negative emotions such as anger, resentment or sadness."

If only it were that simple :)

This is also one of those things in which one has to find a balance. If I don't allow myself to be angry, the anger will not go away; it will go inwards and disrupt my mind, or it will come out in some other way. Then again, it's important to know how to release anger and not to dwell on it without end…

Even if the book isn't original, at least it pushes you to think about how to live life well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Indeed, like may books that give advice, sometimes this one becomes impractical.

I agree that sometimes we need to be angry or sad and that learning to deal with such things is half the battle. On the other hand, many folks get angry or resentful way too often or at frivolous things. I think that almost anyone could find some motivation here to self improve.

Sandra Cox said...

All wonderful ideas, but for a lot of us, very difficult to put in place. But most definitely something to strive for.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sandra - Thanks for stopping by. I agree that the good ideas that are contained here do not always come easily. With that I think books such as this which organizes and explores such ideas can help in implementing such ideas.

So many books, so little time said...

really interesting review Brian, as always. Not sure if this is one for me at the moment. find I am needing lighter fiction in the past week but maybe worth a pick up later in the new year. As always thanks for your insightful thoughts .

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - The Hays translation was very accessible and in a way, it was easy reading :)

JaneGS said...

Interesting post--it almost seems as if this was a private journal, private meditations, and not intended for posterity. I suppose you could view it as making the philosophers that MA draws from accessible, and in that it could be considered as playing a vital role in the history of philosophical thinking.

I pretty much agreed with everything MA put out there except "contempt for the senses." :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - From what I read I think that this work may have been intended as a private journal.

You raise a good point about accessibility, this work opened up these ideas to tens of millions of people down the ages.

The Bookworm said...

It does sound like you enjoyed this one, even if it lacked originality at times. It's interesting when a classic like this can still be relatable in modern day.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - From my point of view, not having read any other Stoics I could not tell that it was not original.

Emma said...

Hi Brian,

I'm catching up on posts.

For me, Marcus Aurelius is not in the same category as Plato. He's more like Cicero and other writers-philosophers who bring philosophy to a level understandable to common people. And that is commendable in itself.

They may not develop new theories but they help their readers anyway.

Emma