Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Meditations (Penguin Classics)My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In writing this book Marcus Aurelius had one strong, guiding principal: to answer the question, "How should a man live?" or, more accurately, "How should I live?" And while he attempted, in true philosophical style, to discuss and explain all aspects of the universe, he doesn't seem to have broken any new ground in most areas. In other words, he was walking roads already heavily trodden by his predecessors and contemporaries, mostly Stoics.

His true triumphs were in the areas of personal conduct and the practical application of his beliefs. You see, he wrote the Meditations as a kind of diary, probably over a period of at least a decade, adding -- and probably removing -- short snippets of personal advice as he went about his life of duty. They were written, apparently, solely for his personal use, to be read again when he was unsure of himself or his actions.

Some of these snippets -- for example, those that speak of "bad" people, or those immovable in their (wrong) opinions -- just wreak of a back-story. What was happening in the emperor's life, personal or political, when he wrote such things? Tantalising thought. Alas, though the Meditations affords a great look into the mind of an emperor, it is nearly barren of political or historical information.

Marcus was clearly an introvert, probably by birth, though his philosophical studies only deepened that personality quirk, into a full-blown belief system. Marcus constantly expresses an urge to busy himself more with personal study and reflection than with the thoughts of others. This might seem egotistical or selfish, but he is rather critical of himself -- and believes that it his and every man's duty to see to the needs of other men. Humans are social animals by nature, he says, and nature is to always be obeyed -- everything that happens according to nature is good. And while he is always highly critical of himself, he is to the end forgiving towards all others. They simply do not understand the errors of their ways, etc.

This, and some of his other thoughts, have lead some to believe that he was a Christian at heart. Yet this is all speculation -- probably empty dreams. Indeed, he may have even had a hand in persecuting Christians, though this was a common practise in those days, and no hard evidence exists to prove it. Still, emperors, even the "good" ones, no doubt personally ordered the executions of dozens of people each week, and many more if we count those done by his inferiors or otherwise indirectly. He surely would have lost no sleep over the deaths of a few thousand "religious fanatics."

In truth, he was the last of the great Pagan moralists. While the continuing rise of Christianity troubled and scared his people, Marcus struggled to fend off the "barbarian" onslaughts on the frontiers while worshipping and revering the dying gods of his fathers. And he tried to be a good man, in the model of the greats he had read about in his books. He believed in only doing things that were useful, and in living frugally. "Even in a palace life can be led well."

How could I not admire this man? Faced with a strange and difficult world, he accepted everything handed to him as given by fate and tried to do what he could. Sure, you might say, it is easy for an emperor to accept a highly hierarchical universe in which everyone has his given place and task. But "Emperoring", at least as he did it, was no easy job. He probably indulged in little luxury and leisure, always with an eye for the welfare of the people.

Sure, Meditations is often, as George Long put it, "obscure", and his language is often unnecessarily lofty and learned. Sure, his work suffers from the same inconsistencies of all the ancient works of ethics that our modern eyes have recently "discovered." Yet I respect this man and feel everyone can learn something from his writings. If nothing else, he tried.

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