Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, November 7th, 2009
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Meditations (Modern Library Classics)

by Marcus Aurelius and Gregory Hays

"To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one"

A review by Doug Brown

Meditations was not Marcus Aurelius's title; he never gave this collection of musings a name. When first posthumously published, it was given the title To Himself, perhaps a more fitting description. Meditations is a collection of self-probings, thoughts, and reminders similar to those found in journals kept by folks the world over. It is arranged into twelve books, thought to possibly correspond to scrolls; as he filled one up, he'd get another. The first book has a theme of acknowledgements and lessons learned from people in his life and other influences, but most of the other books are largely random thoughts.

As translations of classics usually do, Hays's begins with an introduction. Unlike many such introductions, this is actually quite readable, informative, and refreshingly brief. Hays sets down the history and political context that Marcus was writing in, concentrating particularly on the philosophies that influenced him. The scene thus set, Hays takes us right into the book without any of the lengthy academic posturings that often blight classics introductions.

Hays's translation is not literal; often words and phrases are rendered into the colloquial of today. At times this can be a bit jarring, as clearly anachronistic words and sayings come from what is ostensibly Marcus Aurelius's mouth. "Don't gussy up your thoughts" seems a phrase unlikely to have been written by Marcus Aurelius even if he had lived today. Hays has Aurelius refer to his father's "migraines," a diagnosis that may be medically correct, but did not exist for well over a millennia after he lived ("headaches" is the usual translation). A phrase most translators render as "fresh and vigorous" is turned into the wince-inducing "fresh and at the top of his game." But if you're looking for Marcus Aurelius in today's informal language, this is it. You can be assured there will be no archaic words in here you don't know, other than names of people and places which are defined in an appendix.

But enough of my kvetching. I'm recommending this, after all. Why? Because this collection of sayings, aphorisms, and philosophical queries tells us that people are people, and they always have been. From fishmongers to emperors, from the days of ancient Rome to modern times, the human condition has been the same. At times his self-questionings remind me of William Stafford's more introspective poems. Here are a few excerpts:

Stop whatever you're doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won't be able to do this anymore?

Given the material that we're made of, what's the sanest thing that you can do or say? Whatever it may be, you can do or say it. Don't pretend that anything's stopping you.

Pride is a matter of deception: when you think you're occupied in the weightiest business, that's when he has you in his spell.

You take things you don't control and define them as "good" or "bad." And so of course when "bad" things happen, or the "good" ones don't, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible – or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited "good" and "bad" to our own actions, we'd have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you'll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger.

Meditations is a nice quick read (particularly this translation, which requires little concentration by the reader). The structure makes it easy to randomly open up, read a bit, and put down. Along with Gilgamesh and Beowulf, this is a classic that modern readers shouldn't be intimidated by. The most remarkable aspect of the book is it could have been written by any thoughtful person, but the author happened to be emperor of one of the largest empires the planet has ever seen. I was hoping for a bit more of what it was like running the Roman Empire, but these are the musings of a man, not a world leader. However, when he discusses the worthlessness of fame, it's important to remember this was the most famous man in the world talking. When he speaks of the importance of remaining humble, this is coming from someone who was hailed and praised by millions.

Meditations is one of those rare books that you can recommend or give as a gift to pretty much anybody, due to its universality. Marcus Aurelius calls on himself to live simply, remain humble, avoid being judgmental, not fear death, and see all things as interconnected. Good advice for the king and for the people.

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