Reviewed in the United States on July 9, 2019
"What WERE you thinking?" Such an inquiry arises daily ... usually as rhetoric ... rarely answered. Fascinatingly, in this compilation of "Meditations," the question is answered by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. From nearly 2000 years ago, we have his own (translated) words, a penetrating, insightful, recorded litany of what drove the man and who he strove to be.
While ruling the great empire and fighting the northern hordes, Marcus captured his unequivocal ruminations. For this is not a history of battles, or Rome. It is, per the introduction, "... the innermost thoughts of his heart, set down to ease it, with such moral maxims and reflections as may help him to bear the burden of duty ...".
It's the second century! Yet we have this (direct) personal record of one born in A.D. 121, emperor in 161, dead in 180. This is on par with getting the history of the Second World War in Churchill's books. (link) But M.A. delivers at-the-moment pondering while W.C. writes in review of actual events (which he could then bias in his favor).
The language of "Meditations" is not modern; the construct is not storytelling. Starting with "His First Book, concerning Himself," the chapters number twelve, and within each are brief thoughts that range from a few words to two pages before another idea is captured. Beyond the first, none of the chapters sticks with a single topic. The format is very much "Dear Diary, here is what engrossed my mind today."
He writes the thoughts that guide his life, starting that First Book with what he assimilated from members of his family and those closest to him: "Whensoever thou wilt rejoice thyself, think and meditate upon those good parts and especial gifts, which thou hast observed in any of them ...".
The perspective of "Meditations" is strictly Stoicism, trained as he was from childhood in that philosophy. Thus he holds in highest regard the natural world and the social order, saying both "all things ... come to pass according to the nature and general condition of the universe" (Eighth Book) and "Society therefore is the proper good of a rational creature" (Fifth Book). He aspires to continually build self-reliance, and he tests his thinking against the teachings of Plato, Socrates, Diogenes, or the Epicureans.
Female readers rejoice! This ancient thinker posits his own brain as a feminine member saying, "... as for my mind, all things which are not within the verge of her own operation, are indifferent unto her" (Sixth Book). And, "...in those things that properly belong unto the mind, she cannot be hindered by any man." (Eighth Book)
The introduction and first chapter are necessary sections to become acclimated to the climate of this writing and the person. The second and third books are brief. The fourth and sixth were found to have the greatest number of interesting insights. The seventh book shone with philosophical nuggets. The eighth contained many prescient thoughts on living a good life. Book ten trends toward thoughts regarding death.
Each chapter has dissertation the reader might wish to adopt for themselves or put forward toward others. Each has gems as pertinent for a modern time as they were for the ancient time. An item from "Meditations" was used in a contemporary book that I was reading simultaneously, The Russian Galatea.
While quotable in many cases, do not expect poetry from the man who writes, "Affect not to set out thy thoughts with curious neat language." (Third Book) I list a large number of passages at the end of this book report.
The time setting is after Christ, but Christian thought is not paramount. Christians were a meddlesome lot for the emperor, trying to change the natural order with their views. Roman life was guided by many "Gods," manifestations of the natural universe which was the supreme God for Marcus Aurelius.
Christian ideals overlapped with these, the introduction claiming many of Marcus' "thoughts sound like far-off echoes of St. Paul." The contrast between "Meditations" and many books of the Bible, I would say, is that the latter would tend to prescribe "how to live" while the former is more "how to think" about one's life.
The man and the work are an open book, which to him is a worthy goal for all: "... pierce and penetrate ... every one's understanding as also to make the estate of thine own open, and penetrable to any other. (Eighth Book)
A careful review finds inconsistencies. While praising his teacher for providing the example of "whatsoever he did, that he did it with a good intent," (First Book) Marcus is later dismissive of 'passion' (intent): "... neither doth the true good or evil of a reasonable charitable man consist in passion, but in operation and action." (Ninth Book)
Get your 'M.A.' degree by reading "Meditations" from M. Aurelius.