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A Question of Tone
on October 15, 2005
This translation of the Greek writings that the author called "To Himself" is smooth, deft, and self-assured; the book sits well in the hand; the subject index is thorough. For generations Marcus Aurelius has proven not only a welcome counselor, but a worthy opponent to measure oneself against. Why does this version leave one feeling not refreshed but harangued?
In an earnest attempt to reach modern readers, something has gone wrong with the tone. The pages are peppered with the imperative contraction "Don't," and the "You" being addressed is not a man conferring with his soul, but a smug preacher hectoring us with his own perfection. Yet consider how often Marcus returns to certain themes---that you should not mind what other people think of you; that you should cease to assign blame, or feel resentment for ill-treatment; that since life is but breath you should not care whether yours is long or short. The very repetition shows how hard it was for him to attain permanent detachment: you need not exhort yourself to meet standards you have already mastered.
Perhaps a claim made in the introduction, explaining the rationale for a new edition, hints at what seems amiss in The Emperor's Handbook: "[W]e tend to conceive of freedom, even the religious freedoms we take pretty much for granted, in largely political terms, perhaps because, second, we have come seriously to doubt our psychological freedom, or freedom of mind." (9) (How's that again? Rather, in an era of contracting public freedoms and increasing pressure toward conformity, many contend that the only true liberty lies within.) A version inspired by such assumptions skews the even-tempered voice of the fellow human being who wrote these meditations. The layout, with bullet lists and sound bites, makes the book look like yet another treatise aimed at the tired businessman; and the new title seems a marketing ploy. The world needs no more emperors.
When judging a work in a foreign tongue, it is wise to use one translation as a corrective for another. By all means buy this version, as I did: the celebrated and successful give it high praise (see dust jacket). And buy one of the other renderings; consult the reviews on this site for Hays, or Staniforth. Then read them in tandem, compare and contrast, in order to better "See things for what they are" (Book 12, Section 10) for yourself.