65 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2003
The Meditations are terse statements, aphorisms, notes, even reminders. Some are like fragmented dialogues, which I find fascinated. Some are very hard to get a hold of. Others remarkably clear. Summarizing them is hard, and surely misleading, but they seem frequently to stand against illusions and mistaken judgments, especially in the face of frustration, desire, fear, and anger. The positive dimension of this is harder to describe (maybe because I have yet to know it firsthand): calmness, purpose, self-control, and a true reckoning of what will matter in the end, as understood in terms of the harmony and essential order of all things. He can be difficult in places, but at other times it is as though he sees into your soul.
I think Marcus Aurelius will strike readers very differently based on where they are coming from. Some readers will resonate with his insistence on self-awareness, equanimity, and responsibility for one's own mental state and reactions. Other readers will be attracted by his ethical standards, commitment to the common good, and sense of divine harmony in all events. Others will simply enjoy his sobering reflection and insightful commentary on human nature. Historians will be fascinated with a look into the mind of a Roman emperor, seemingly untouched by the affairs of state (they are hardly mentioned in the text). Philosophers will enjoy learning about Stoic thought in praxis and how he's picked up the thought of other Greek thinkers (Epictetus, Chrysippus, Heraclitus, etc). Perhaps one of the most amazing things is how he might appeal equally to readers from very different backgrounds, a testament to the complexity of his thinking.
This particular edition comes with a very good introduction that answers questions of history, religion, philosophy, and thematic ideas. I highly recommend it to those interested in Marcus Aurelius and his philosophical thought. In addition, Gregory Hays is a masterful translator who, I think, has taken care to convey the meaning of the original Greek in appropriate English counterparts.
The first chapter is a beautiful one that describes Marcus Aurelius' gratitude to the many people that have positively influenced him, in each case telling what it is that he gained from them. Might we do the same someday ourselves? Though it is highly selective for me to do so (leaving out big chunks of what the book is like, especially the more obviously Stoic in form and content--such as the fleeting transience of life), below are just a few of my favorite quotes.
"The best revenge is not to be like that."
"You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they'll still go on doing it."
"It was for the best. So nature had no choice but to do it."
"Forget the future. When and if it comes, you'll have the same resources to draw on--the same Logos."
"Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren't aiming to do the impossible. --aiming to do what then? --To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished."
"Think of yourself as dead. You've lived your life. Now take what's left and live it properly."
"...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..."
78 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2006
Amazon has not done a good job sorting out the various editions and translations of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. As a result, comments with many stars actually may be referring to an entirely different translation. Likewise, hardbound references don't match up with the paperback versions. I'd recommend that you find a copy somewhere and look at the text yourself before you order.
89 of 97 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2004
It was interesting to see that one reviewer went looking for a copy of the Modern Library edition of "Meditations" as a gift, and had to settle for a different translation.
There was a time when many publishers had in print their own editions -- usually "gift editions," in a range of prices -- of the little book, "To Himself," by the second-century Roman patrician Marcus Annius Catilius Severus (121-180 C.E.), known after his marriage as Marcus Annius Verus -- almost always titled something like "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," and most commonly some version (little choice disguised as many choices) of George Long's 1862 translation of the Greek original, originally published as "The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus."
For Marcus, besides receiving an excellent education in Greek, which he seems to have used as naturally as Latin, went on, through a process of adoption and co-optation, to rule the Roman Empire, beginning in 161 with the death of Antoninus Pius, his uncle, who had adopted him as heir, using a third version of his name. For moderns, he is usually just Marcus Aurelius; I found it a bit of shock to see him as just another "Antoninus" in ancient texts.
Under any name, he has been popular, at least with publishers; even now, there seem to be something like sixty versions in English of this book available on Amazon, even though many *are* out of print (and most seem to be of the same few older translations). As usual, a number of these editions and translations are grouped by Amazon for review purposes, and I will mention some. If you find this, or someone else's, review of one translation under a different heading, PLEASE remember that, as Marcus Aurelius saw, some things really are beyond our control.
It should require more thought to understand Marcus than it does to follow the English version. The Modern Library's current offering, a new translation by George Hays, is based on modern text editions, and seems to be both an excellent first introduction to the book, and graceful reading for those with no interest in looking further. It has brief but helpful notes, and a glossary of names, which helps keep the notes short and to the point. Some will follow his references to more advanced treatments, including textual as well as philosophical problems.
As for Marcus Aurelius, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest, and certainly the most morally and intellectually impressive, of all Roman Emperors. Gibbon tended to see the Empire's real decline as subsequent to his death, a view not without its reflection in the recent motion picture "Gladiator." The transitions by appointment from Trajan to Hadrian to Antoninus Pius to Marcus produced one of the most successful set of reigns in history (if mainly from a strictly Roman and Imperial point of view). It is perhaps the best historically-documented counterpart of the Chinese tradition of the Sage Emperors who chose as heirs the Most Virtuous (or Most Effective) subjects, instead of favored sons.
The policy had precedents in Roman history, although none so successful for so long. Family loyalty was admired, and inheritance gave access to key property, including the slaves in the bureaucracy, and the loyalty of followers (veteran soldiers, freedmen and other clients); yet the whole dynastic principle was suspect as un-Roman. It was in part accidental, Antoninus, for example, himself almost a last-minute substitute, having no son to be his heir. Marcus Aurelius designated his son Commodus as successor, with less fortunate consequences, after the death of his first choice; although Commodus' evil reputation may reflect his political and military failures, and the interests of his successors, as much as his personality.
So one might expect from the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius some manifesto on statesmanship, or imperial strategy, or at least good government. In fact, his twelve books (booklets, really) of little notes "to himself" contain reflections on fate, on moral lessons from classical literature, on religion, on human nature. They are probably the last thing one would expect of a Supreme Autocrat and Generalissimo.
Nor are they an exposition of a philosophic system; no surprise that some reviewers, apparently expecting one, have found them unsatisfying.
The first three books have titles (some are subscripts in the manuscript tradition, but, like Hays, I think they are misplaced). "On the River Gran, Among the Quadi," refers to a campaign on the borders of the empire. If it is the heading of Book Two, the lack of any explicit reference therein to the hard-fought German campaign is worth pondering. Was this what the Emperor considered truly important? What he wanted us to think he thought was important? (But there is internal evidence that he had no intention of making any of it public.) What he preferred to think about when he could get away from the war for a few moments? It should be remembered that he was a successful campaigner.
Hays' clear translation into modern English joins a number of post-Long translations. Older versions include the important version with commentary of A.S.L. Farquharson (Oxford, 1944, out of print; his translation with new introduction, etc., World's Classics, 1990, and Oxford World's Classics, 1998), and two competitors for the student and general reader markets, respectively, by G.M.A. Grube (originally Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1963) and Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Classics, 1964), which have been in and out of print (but mostly in) for four decades. Of these, I much prefer Hays -- although the additional material in the World's Classics edition(s) is worth a look. (Staniforth, by the way, says that "a couple of generations ago" major publishers had "elegant miniature" editions of classics, usually including the "Meditations" -- those I remember from the 1960s themselves were full-sized, and distinguished only by gilt edges and/or slipcovers and/or presentation pages.)
It also joins the highly-praised contemporary version, "The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations," translated by David Hicks and C. Scott Hicks (2002; not seen).
It competes as well with a fairly recent (1993) Dover Thrift Edition of the George Long translation, revised (and not for the first time) to modernize his mid-Victorian English and untangle his somewhat convoluted fidelity to (a long-obsolete edition of) the Greek. That Long was not very readable was probably not of much concern to those who used to buy and give (and possibly receive) editions designed to suggest educated tastes; certainly not to the sellers. Long's concern for accuracy should be emulated, but turning relatively clear Greek into opaque English doesn't seem the best way to achieve the goal. (In all fairness, what was plain enough language in mid-Victorian England / Civil War America may now seem obscure for other reasons.)
The novelist Mary Renault thought that Marcus' example refuted Lord Acton's view that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but the most remarkable lesson of the "Meditations" is that Marcus Aurelius did not believe that he HAD absolute power. He had been chosen and groomed for a role he had been taught to accept as a duty, and regarded it as both an obligation and an imposition. For Marcus was a Stoic -- not in the commonplace sense of someone who repressed his feelings or endured pain without expression, but in the original sense of a follower of philosophy that offered a quasi-religious approach to life. Hays usefully points out (with helpful bibliography) that Marcus was, in the manner of his time, eclectic, but grants that, if asked, he would have identified himself with Stocism.
The movement was founded by Zeno of Citium (or Kition), born on Cyprus (about 336 B.C.E.) in a family said to be part Phoenician, who taught in the Stoa Poikile, or "Painted Walkway," in Athens, from some point after 313 to his death about 261 B.C.E. It was one of the key movements of Hellenistic times, and found a ready reception among upper class Romans as well. Teaching calm in the face of stress, and endorsing acceptance of public obligations, including religion, it is traditionally paired with, and contrasted to, Epicureanism, which taught avoidance of excessive pain and pleasure, withdrawal into private life, and the pointlessness of traditional religion. (Not hedonism, as popularly imagined; nor did it deny the existence of gods, only that they had any interest in anything so trivial and base as human concerns.)
For those who find the "Meditations" intriguing but unsatisfying, works by other Stoics may be more fulfilling; there are some excellent recent volumes translating and interpreting Marcus' older contemporary, Epictetus, a slave who set an example to the rulers of the western world -- but that would be another review.
71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2007
I was excited to order the penguin classic as I now live in Japan and had left my prior copy in NY. However, I am not quite so happy with this new translation as I find it diluted for the masses and less meaningful. Though Marcus Aurelius offers great wisdom the new translation offers the stoic cliches stated so colloquially that we've heard them all before. Meditations are statements to be slowly chewed, savored and deeply thought about; while I feel the current translation offers Aurelius in a more ambiguous, predigested and less flavorful form. However, I'm a bit particular! A prior reviewer found this helpful in that it was easier to read.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
I reread Marcus Aurelius' Meditations every five years or so, and each time I do I'm struck by the sheer pathos of the book. Here's the most powerful man in the world (of his day), the emperor Marcus Aurelius, absolute sovereign of the western world, a ruler who held the power of life and death over millions of subjects, and moreover a man steeped in philosophy and wisdom traditions--who confronts his own mortality and realizes that even he must die. The Meditations is Marcus' soul-searching, occasionally disingenuous, usually calm but sometimes panicky panicky effort to come to grips with that sobering fact. If life is ephemeral, even for the world's most powerful man, how should that life be lived?
It's this intensely human need to figure out what life is about before the inevitable night closes in that makes Marcus' journals so intensely interesting and valuable to the rest of us. His answers, coming from the philosophical tradition of Stoicism, aren't for everyone. My guess is that readers with a few years on them will find stoicism more attractive than younger readers who are full of oats and hormones. Marcus argues that that a happy life is one lived in accordance with nature; that living in accordance with nature means cultivating a "just" or rational mind and virtuous behavior that accord with the rationality of creation; that humans are interconnected both with nature and one another, such that no person who tries to deny the connection can live happily or healthily; and that human freedom and happiness is proportionate to the cultivation of apatheia or indifference to those matters over which we have no control (very much like the wisdom expressed in the Buddha's Four Noble Truths).
Ultimately, each person must face death alone, as best he or she can. But if Marcus's Meditations offer much food for thought, not only about the mortality which we all carry but also about the good life for which we all yearn.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2006
While this translation is concise and lacks the flowery writing of the George Long version which I've also bought, it remains true to the simplicity of the Stoic lifestyle and the casual writing of someone doing this only for themselves. If you want to satisfy your ego and read something with more flowers, get the George Long version or something else. If you want to understand what Aurelius means and don't care about the difficulty of a book as long as you get something out of it, I'd recommend this because it's probably more accurate in terms of tone and formality, and like another reviewer said before me, it's reads as though Aurelius were right over your shoulder giving you advice.
While some of his theories lack sound proof, he never wrote this for anyone else to read, so he has no reason to go out of his way to prove something to himself. It's up to the reader to find the proof, or refute what he says. It's a very interesting, easily understandable read that comes of as some sort of ancient self-help book. It's advice for living a decent life in a complicated and confusing society, with a limit on your existence in this world. Personally, I'd recommend buying both of the versions I mentioned (you can actually find some george long versions free online) because Hays tends to simplify a lot, but you can pretty much get the same understanding from this easier read version.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
"And you can also commit an injustice by doing nothing." -- Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations
My sister loves this book, but I was never able to get into it until I found this translation. Marcus Aurelius wrote this for his own usage - it was never intended for publication, much less being seen by others. It was something he was writing in uncertain times, and it's an intimate view of a man searching for peace and self-mastery.
This grace and immediacy did not come across well in previous, more formal-sounding translations which seemed to imply that Marcus Aurelius was handing down maxims to a large crowd. Hays' new translation lets us get closer to the author, and also gain a deeper understanding of how badly Marcus needed this for his own sanity, and in turn, how much modern life needs his thoughts on being a decent person in an indecent world.
I heard about a subway mugging (apologies - I can't remember where I read this, but it was within the past 3 years) in which a young man intervened, injuring himself in the process and becoming hospitalized. When asked why he inserted himself into a situation which he could have easily avoided, he quoted from this book. Just go and read this. It certainly invited me to consider a more wide-ranging perspective and a greater awareness of the daily thoughts that distract us, and the possibility of thinking nobler, more solid thoughts.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
What makes Meditations an important book is that it provides the opportunity to discuss what it is to be human, to have a soul, to live a good life with one of the most remarkable men in history.
Before I get to that I want to second a suggestion made by several reviewers. Use two or more translations when you read the Meditations. I like this Penguin Classics edition. The introduction by Diskin Clay is useful, the translation by Martin Hammond is mostly accurate and his explanatory notes are very useful. There are some solid suggestions for further reading and several useful indices (of Names, of Quotations, and a General Index).
My one qualm about the translation is that Hammond sometimes makes the book sound a little Christian. Hammond will use "sin" where other translators (like Farquharson or Frances Hutchinson) would use "impiety" or "harm". This is decidedly not a Christian text. There is nothing in Marcus Aurelius (MA) of final judgment. There is no reward or punishment for our actions in this life. MA suspends judgments on all sorts of issues. It is clear that he believes in gods and occasionally talks about God (see 12.2). But he also mentions many times the alternative belief that all is chance and that death will be followed by oblivion. It is essential to his ethics however that death is not followed by any sort of hell.
Also worth thinking about is whether MA is a man whose philosophy is to be rejected (or, at least, radically modified) because it ultimately makes one less human. With MA, everything is to be thought through with the corrosive that is reason. We must not let our attachments cause us to lose sight of the truth.
We may kiss our children good night but we must remind ourselves as we are doing so that they could be dead tomorrow (11.34 in Meditations- this bit of choice advice came from Epictetus)!
One point about this is that there is a real conflict in MA with his idea that we should accept everything that the gods see fit to visit upon us (an idea expressed too many times to quote a single source) and his desire to not be effected by any of it. I would argue that true acceptance does not seek invulnerability. True confront embraces vulnerability and fully accepts the whole of our humanity. We have a choice about how we respond to our suffering. MA, at his best, is saying that and pointing out that we can not let our suffering control our actions. At his worst, he sometimes seems to be saying that we can chose not to feel our suffering. He is such a compelling writer that I think it is all too easy to read MA in a way that avoids how radical are some of his ideas.
The desire of MA for some sort of emotional invulnerability is part and parcel of his rejection of quotidian experience. He does not seem to have liked or admired many of his contemporaries and he does not seem fond of the simple pleasures of life. His descriptions of sexuality are always mingled with tones of disgust.
Where the Meditations may be most useful is when we are dealing with some sort of very extreme situation. There are two Naval Academy essays by John Stockdale about how he survived his imprisonment during the Vietnam War using the philosophy of Epictetus that delve into the full complexity of that philosophy. (These essays are referenced in the intro to the Penguin edition
of Epictetus' writings. You can use the Amazon preview of that book to see the reference.)
Does all this mean that I think you should not immediately run out and buy a copy of this book? NO, NO, a thousand times, NO. The Meditations is one of those few books that everyone should read for help in working out their own philosophy. We all have to come to grips with how we want to live our own lives, what values we want to honor and MA is one of the writers who will help you work that out. He belongs in the company of St. Augustine, of Montaigne, of Machiavelli, of Plato, and of the Buddha (among many others- this list is mine own).
So, yes, read MA in the Hammond translation by all means. Remember that he wrote this book so that he would have constant and personal reminders to live up to his own philosophy. By reading this book, you may come to some understanding of what it would be like to live up to your own philosophy.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2003
Meditations is the kind of book you can just open up to any page and learn from, a still-relevant lesson about how to set priorities in what Socrates called the examined life. It is also a fascinating tour of the mind of Marcus Aurelius, the military leader, emperor, educator, philanthropist, and philosopher who remains one of history's most noble protagonists, and whose writings reveal the loneliness of his soul without being bitter.
This is a must-have book for the nightstand of anyone living a contemplative life, a profound precursor to modern self-help books written by a Renaissance man who lived centuries before the Renaissance.
There is no plot to summarize here, no accurate generalizations to be made. One gets the idea that these are thoughts the author jotted down, sometimes between appointments and sometimes after months of contemplation. Often they are obvious, sometimes they are obscure. They can seem rooted in history, and at times based on today's current events. They can be funny, surprising, or sad. But they are almost always worthwhile.
A final note: I have two editions of this book, and while I think both this one and the Hicks' translation are very good, I prefer this by a small degree.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2004
This is my favorite translation of the meditations, an opinion further solidified yesterday when I went to the book store to get a last-minute graduation gift for a young man, and all they had was "The Emperor's Handbook" by the Hicks brothers. It was good, but I think it lacked the manliness and concise clarity of the Hays translation. I have not read the original Greek, (trying to learn some now!), so I'm no authority, but I imagine this is how a man like Marcus Aurelius might write to himself in this circumstance.
As for the greatness of the original work itself, all I can add to the other fine reviews here are two quotes I have always loved from Clifton Fadiman's "The Lifetime Reading Plan":
". . . during the last ten years of his life, by the light of a campfire, resting by the remote Danube after a wearisome day of marching or battle, he set down in Greek his Meditations, addressed only to himself but by good fortune now the property of us all," and, "Through the years The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius, as it has been called, has been read by vast numbers of men and women. They have thought of it not as a classic but as a well spring of consolation and inspiration. It is one of the few books that seem to have helped men directly and immediately to live better, to bear with greater dignity and fortitude the burden of being merely human. Aristotle one studies. Marcus Aurelius men take to their hearts."