on December 1, 1998
The style is direct and unpretentious. The message is simple but extraordinarily powerful: life is short, the past and the future are inaccessible, pain and pleasure have no meaning, but inside each one of us there is a ruling faculty that is touched only by itself. Only that which makes us better capable of confronting our condition with resolution and courage can be said to be good, and only that which makes us worse and more unsatisfied can be said to be bad. The only thing that is of any importance is our own private quest for perfection, which no external power can ever destroy. Marcus Aurelius delivers many insightful and inspirational observations about human nature and the human condition, and he makes an excellent rational argument for seeking the good and for acting modestly and continently. I cannot think or a more satifying and moving work, and it is all the more poignant because it was written by a man who wielded almost absolute power and lived surrounded by the luxury, yet managed to keep things in perspective and to occupy himself only with what truly matters. One sentence captures perfectly the spirit of his writings: "Where a man can live, there he can also live well." An extraordinary testimony of wisdom and fortitude.
When it comes to Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius is second to Epictetus in the discussion of avoiding the indulgence of emotion. However, Aurelius' "Meditations" is different simply because it's the first leadership memoir based on Stoic philosophy.
The book is raw - it seems that these were never going to be published, so it had a bluntness to it and an honesty rare for a military leader, let alone one of the best Roman Emperors in history. He was a spiritual man, and tried to rationalize his duties. It lacks rhetorical flourish but it's honest.
I don't know if the book stands alone as a philosophical work, but it is an interesting work about self improvement, duty and service. Despite his reputation as a "philosopher king," the book remains a valuable book in leadership and history.
The Kindle version itself is pretty well laid out with ample enough notes and historical background on Aurelius himself to help you better understand the man himself. His notes range in length from a few sentences to multiple pages, so there's no real orderly format to the book (to me, this makes it more appealing.)
Since the Kindle version is free, give it a try. You'll find yourself better for it.
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.
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..."
on March 28, 2011
(Just to be clear, the Meditations is a five-star book. My two-star rating applies only to this Kindle edition.)
Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, may be the closest mankind has ever come to producing the philosopher king that Plato envisioned in The Republic. A reluctant ruler and a reluctant warrior, much of his reign was spent in battle, defending the frontiers of the empire from the "barbarian" hordes. Fortunately for us, he carried a notebook along on his military campaigns, and thus we have the Meditations. Marcus's writings reveal him to be the last and greatest of the classical Stoics. Stoicism is a school of thought that asserts we have no control over our lives, only control over our perceptions. It advocates that the best life is the life that is lived in accordance with nature (not "nature" as in grass and trees, but "nature" as in the order of the universe). By concentrating one's thoughts and choices on what is good and virtuous, and disregarding the unimportant distractions of everyday life (even life and death are said to be neither good nor bad, but "indifferent"), we can avoid negative emotions like fear, anger, grief, and frustration, and live a life of happiness and tranquility. That's an oversimplification, of course. If you really want to know what Stoicism is and how it works read Epictetus or Seneca. What Marcus provides us with are the reflections of a man who studied and lived the Stoic life, and was its ultimate exemplar. Even if you don't buy into Stoicism, or have no interest in Philosophy with a capital P, you can still find inspiration and solace in the Meditations, as Marcus instructs us in dealing justly with others, overcoming emotional hardship, living life to the fullest by overcoming the fear of death, and resigning oneself to the insignificance of man in the universe.
The Meditations are divided into twelve books. Each book contains anywhere from 16 to 75 numbered paragraphs, ranging in length from a sentence to a page. The paragraphs are arranged without regard to sequence or subject matter. This haphazard method of compilation is really the book's only flaw. What the Meditations has always needed is a good index, but I've never found a volume that has one.
The Kindle edition that's offered for free on Amazon, which is the same as the one downloadable from Project Gutenberg, contains one major flaw. There is an interactive table of contents which allows you to click on the twelve books; that's fine. Following that, however, there is another clickable table of contents that lists the first line of every paragraph in the Meditations. That's a wonderful idea, in theory, but in practice it's a major pain. This extended table of contents is written as one long page of links, so it takes forever to load. You spend minutes staring at a blank screen waiting for the type to show up, then minutes more until you can actually move your cursor. Sometimes the screen saver kicks in before you even get to that point. I wish someone would go into the file and break that table up into twelve separate pages so it might actually be useful. In this edition there are no notes to the text, other than a few translator's notes. Unless you know a heck of a lot about ancient Rome and Stoicism, notes are pretty necessary for a book like this. There's a small glossary of proper names, and an appendix of correspondence between Marcus and his teacher Fronto. I like having a portable copy of the Meditations on my Kindle, but this is one case where the e-book is no substitute for a paper edition.
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.
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.
I love history, philosophy, and religion. This book covered all three subjects and kept my interest. It is not often that you get a philosopher emperor to write down his thoughts, but this is what happened here. You have a man who by all accounts was a great leader and a good man and we get to see what was important to him and what his underlying assumptions were about life.
His values are quite universal. For example, he values self-mastery, and doesn't like complainers. As an engineer, I enjoyed hearing about how he thought things worked. Many are out of date, but several are what we would consider accurate.
I got a better feel for Stoicism from his discussions and it helped me understand how the Romans thought prior to adopting Christianity. He did make a disparaging comment about the Christians; he thought they were fanatics that didn't work well with others. I noticed from history that he was involved in their persecution in Gaul.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in philosophy. It got me thinking and sparked more interest in Marcus Aurelius.
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.
on August 31, 2003
This edition of Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' is an excellent rendition of what may be the most profound book of insight meditation ever written. It is an updating of George Long's venerable 1862 translation, with long sentences untangled and thee's and thou's modernized to you's . At first I found it a little dry and underemphatic, but as I continued reading, I became thoroughly engaged by its clarity and precision. As a literal reading, the Dover edition is a lot more readable than Loeb's Haines translation, and more direct than Staniforth's Penguin edition. And at this price, you almost can't afford not to have it. 'Meditations' really can help you be a better person.