207. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (c. 170-180 AD)

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD, was perhaps at first glance the closest to Plato’s “philosopher-king” yet realised. But his Meditations are a set of short paragraphs written as notes for his own reference, rather than a deliberately crafted work for others to learn by, and therefore maybe more telling of his real thoughts and feelings. Reading them not as advice handed over but the opportunity to look into his mind. Ideas are repeated and reworded, or sometimes just plain obscure.

This is a title that readers have recommended to me as they bought fresh copies from the bookshop where I work, so I was curious to see if it resonated as strongly with me as it had for them. My edition is a translation by Gregory Hays, published by The Modern Library, New York (ISBN 9780679642602)

The editor makes a good point about the nature of religion and philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome : it was no use looking to the Gods for guidance on ethical living : they were portrayed as just as lustful, angry, lazy or greedy as humans. It would be philosophers who provided people with direction on how to best live. And an essentially good man who found himself in a position of power might well think about his actions and choices more carefully.

Aurelius’ thoughts are gathered into twelve books, the first being acknowledgements of the debts owed to family and friends for the virtues and wisdom they provided. A frequently repeated theme is the acceptance of death (it seems to occupy Aurelius’ thoughts a great deal)

No one owns the past or future, only the present, and we will either pass on to another life, or return to the constituent elements we were formed from. Aurelius also recognized that our ability to understand the world may not last as long as our earthly bodies

“… if our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But  getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty lies, analyzing what we see and hear, deciding whether its time to call it quits – all the things you need a healthy mind for … all these are gone. So we must hurry. Our understanding – our grasp of the world – may be gone before we get there.”  Meditations 3.1

Favourite lines/passages:

“Concentrate …. On doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice … do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life”     Meditations 2.5

“Make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile, stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions”  Meditations 2.7

 “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 … is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?   – But its nicer here …”   Meditations 5.1

“The best revenge is not to be like that”  Mediatation 6.6

“the incessant progression of time remakes eternity”   Meditations 6.15   (not sure I really really understand this, but it sounds impressive!)

“what injures the hive injures the bee”  Meditations 6.54

“All those people who came into the world with me and have already left it”   Meditations 6.56

Personal rating: If this work speaks to you, as it undoubtedly does to some, I can see it would be a book which thoughtful people would return to for guidance or comfort. I am happy to experience, and just as happy to move on.  Some ideas struck a cord with me, others too obscure or personal to the author, some just do not fit or are assigned to fate or nature without further argument. But by book 7, I had lost interest and just skimmed the last pages. Philosophy is just not for me. 4/10.

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