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.”
“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.