Author: Marcus Aurelius
Translator: Gregory Hays
Publisher: Random House, Modern Library Classics
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got a copy: I purchased it from Kobo
I need to admit something: the books I’ve been reading so far are not for pleasure. I’m not hoping to enjoy them and escape from the world for a bit.
I’m using them as armour and weapons.
Staying strong and being hopeful while fighting for change is a form of armour. Understanding history and trying to find patterns behind past political movements in order to know what to expect is a weapon.
So is learning equanimity and steadiness, the art of how not to let change throw you off-balance. And that’s why I just read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
The circumstances surrounding how the Meditations became public knowledge are happenstance. Marcus Aurelius originally wrote these notes as a form of solace and guidance while wearing the heavy mantle of Roman emperor; during his military campaigns and time at court, he wrote down his thoughts so that he could keep Stoic philosophy front and centre in his mind. They were not intended for public consumption, and the repetitive, disjointed nature of the passages within the book are ample proof.
How his writing reached the wider world is a mystery. But when it re-entered the historical record in the 10th century and was published more widely in the 16th century, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius became a seminal text for many political leaders due to its focus on living a life guided by self-restraint, justice, austerity and detachment.
I went with the Gregory Hays translation because some basic research online revealed it was one of the most readable and highly regarded versions. Looking back, I have to say it was an excellent choice.
I should note first off that the Hays version has an extensive introduction placing Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in context, with commentary on his childhood, education, and ascension to the throne, as well as on central concepts of Stoic thought. The introduction is probably about half as long as Meditations itself.
Throughout reading the book, I was struck by several things in particular.
One is that Stoicism’s focus on detachment, humility, and accepting the will of nature/logos has a strong similarity to Buddhist thought. Or at least, it bears a strong similarity given my extremely basic, extremely Western understanding of Buddhism. For example:
And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free — free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them — those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess — and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind — to prize it — will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well — embracing what they allot you and what they ordain. (Book 6, section 16)
From my extremely untutored perspective, this sounds very similar to the Buddhist conceit that desire (“those things you prize”) is the source of suffering (“you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you”).
On the other hand, Aurelius says quite often that the source of our unhappiness lies in our perceptions and willingness to believe that we’ve been wronged:
External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. (Book 8, section 47)
This to me, sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing Stephen Covey talks about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — specifically the sections on proactivity vs reactivity.
Connecting those two books and authors may be valid, but it makes me feel skeevy somehow, because the contexts I associate with each of them are so different — the noble, long-dead philosopher king vs. the epitome of corporate self-help gurus.
Speaking of kings, one of the other things that I really had to come to terms with in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is that, to modern readers, Aurelius’s words are imbued with a high amount of unexamined privilege:
Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. (Book 8, section 16)
I mean, yes, it’s important to stay strong and try to withstand hardship. But, as a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius had resources available to mitigate the worst things that could happen to him: the most competent administrators, the best food, the highest quality medical care. So much of his advice focuses on agency and action, but, given the time and place in which he lived, he had an exceptional amount of latitude to exercise his agency in the first place.
Try telling an Indigenous protester at Standing Rock to accept destruction with tranquility and see how far that gets you. The people who do that with a straight face either don’t understand the risks involved or aren’t negatively affected by said destruction. In other words, they just wouldn’t care.
Despite these challenges reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, what I connected with most strongly was the sense that it was written primarily for private use. The thoughts within are intimate, personal. Aurelius’s thoughts are not polished, but the fact that he returns to the same ideas so often — justice, restraint, impermanence, mortality — is evidence of just how thoroughly they occupied his mind. In a way, it reminds me of my own existential scribblings from high school. And anyone who can remind me of that aspect of my teenage years without making cringe deserves to be read.