Meditations

Author: Marcus Aurelius

Published: This edition, 2003 (170 pages)

Started reading: 12.December.2016

Finished reading: 25.December.2016


Brief description

An emperor’s personal exhortations to himself, Meditations was written by Marcus Aurelius, who served as the ruler of the Roman Empire from A.D. 161 until his death in 180.

The real Marcus wasn’t strangled by Joaquin Pheonix (like in The Gladiator) but fell ill during a military campaign against the Germans, leaving the throne to his (somewhat of a disappointment of a) son, Commodus (i.e. Joaquin). Marcus was considered by Edward Gibbon as the last of the five good emperors; a philosopher-king in the best tradition of Plato.

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Most probably written during campaigns in the latter half of his emperorship, the edition of Meditations that has been best recommended (by Ryan Holiday, among others) is: Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius: Meditations : A New Translation (Paperback – Revised Ed.); 2003 Edition. This particular version features an expert introduction and translation by Gregory Hays, a classics professor at the University of Virginia.

The text of the book is fragmented, divided into discrete chunks or ‘meditations’ – a name given to the book by renaissance scholars – that Marcus appears to have written to and for himself, whether regularly or intermittently we don’t know. These ruminations are grouped into ‘books’ – there are twelve in total – which don’t have a thematic organisation but were determined by physical limitations: when Marcus filled up a piece of manuscript (probably papyrus) he started the next ‘book’.

As the notes were never intended to be published, let alone read 18 centuries later, the prose is at times visibly imperfect. He’s grasping for words, making insider references, repeating ideas so as to drill them into his brain. At other times, the writing is gripping and fresh, such as the opening of 5.23, when he reflects on the transience of all of existence.

“Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone – those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us – a chasm whose depths we cannot see.”

– Book 5, verse 23

Meditations is a book largely inseparable from its context. Much of the imagery is agrarian or natural, reminding you that for all Rome’s eventual size (the city grew to a population of more than one million during the century in which Marcus reigned, a size that wouldn’t be eclipsed by any other western city until the nineteenth century), the romans, at least aspirationally, remained farmers, the ideal of Cincinnatus still firmly in their minds’ eyes.

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Cincinnatus swaps the plough for the dictatorship

A lot of the book contains stoic claptrap, with talk such as ‘the logos‘, the inherent goodness of nature, and the existence of fundamental elements – air, earth, fire, water. However, while modern readers familiar with Stoicism may be across the dispensability of its worldview pertaining to physics and ontology, they will equally be aware of its indispensability as a philosophical or ethical system for living one’s life within the reality of death and suffering. Marcus’ text remains a treasure trove for this brand or kernel of late roman Stoicism. And that is what makes it so valuable today.

“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed.

Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.”

– An ancient, Aurelian prototype of cognitive-behavioural therapy found in Book 4, verse 7. A very stoic sentiment, oft repeated in Meditations.

Indeed, passages in Meditations wouldn’t be out of place as post-it messages for a fridge. For example, here’s what Marcus would tell himself as motivation to meet the day:

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’ ”

Or this pithy one-liner in Book 6: “The best revenge is not to be like that.”

Yet these more traditionally inspiring messages are few and far between. Mostly, reading Meditations risks imparting a certain sense of melancholy. Marcus strives so diligently to moderate his expectations of others and to remind himself of his own mortality that it would appear he’s down on life.

Some things the roman emperor wrote to himself:

-“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

-“Keep this constantly in mind: that all sorts of people have died – all professions, all nationalities. Follow the thought all the way down to Philiston, Phoebus, and Origanion. Now extend it to other species.

We have to go there too, where all of them have already gone…”

-“All that you see will soon have vanished, and those who see it vanish will vanish themselves, and the ones who reached old age have no advantage over the untimely dead.”

From time to time, all this sombreness is punctuated by an oddly nihilistic brand of humour. I actually found myself laughing at lines like:

“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”

Notwithstanding his deep respect for Marcus, Gregory Hays, in his introduction, criticises Marcus on this very front, seeing “the central shortcoming of his philosophy as its failure to make any allowance for joy… Marcus does not offer us a means of achieving happiness, but only a means of resisting pain.”

I rather think that Marcus did get it, how joy works. That he knew that the mere avoidance of unhappiness constitutes a kind of happiness in itself, because the human default is to be happy. More on that another time.


Actionable insights

>Use these well-cited words from Marcus to prepare yourself to deal with difficult people: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”

>Practice being ruthlessly objective about things that seem difficult or intimidating, as well as addictive things that you enjoy. Your reticular activating system can turn you off challenges because they seem to be harder than if you very coolly analysed them and simply acted. Marcus reminds us: “Like seeing roast meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realising: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood…That’s what we need to do all the time – all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust – to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” Having a tough conversation is really just letting air vibrations come out of your mouth towards another person’s ears, going to the gym is really just picking up heavy items and putting them down again, etc etc.

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