Marcus Aurelius


Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

I think there’s just a certain time in your life, when these works become meaningful; when their wisdom seems to be clear; when they matter more than just for quotable lines and catch phrases. I suspect I am come into that age, or am at least on its doorstep. I am reading – and appreciating – more of the classics every day.

I may not be wise myself, but I believe I can identify wisdom in others, and I hope I can emulate that. One way to learn is to read the classics.

Which makes me wonder: if I know that now, why I didn’t apply myself to them more assiduously in the past, and benefit from them at an earlier age? Distractions, laziness, immaturity, I suppose. They’re not always easy, often require cerebral effort and can be a bit strident in their admonitions.

What truly amazes me is how the ancient authors write about issues, ask questions and ponder the answers that are the same as those we raise and ask today. Sure, technology has changed, cultures evolved and developed, but we still wrestle with the basic questions of mortality, of behaviour, ethics, morals, love, loyalty and friendship. The notions of good and evil, of virtuous and malicious action, of responsibility to individuals and to community – they were all raised by writers and philosophers as far back as recorded history lets us peer.

The Meditations were originally penned not for publication, but rather like a journal of notes for himself. An ancient diary or, if you will, a blog of great depth and maturity.

Wikipedia tells us about the Meditations:

A central theme to “Meditations” is to analyze your judgement of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As he said “You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite”.
He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. It seems at some points in his work that we are all part of a greater construct thus taking a collectivist approach rather than having an individualist perspective. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “Being a good man”.
His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos. This allows one to rise above faulty perceptions of “good” and “bad”.

Aurelius was a Stoic. I’ve read fragments of their works before, but not concentrated on any of them or any specific work for any length of time; no complete book or canon. I’ve sometimes felt their aphorisms – those few I’ve encountered – read a little too much like bumper stickers. But again, that’s changing as I read Aurelius, as I look below the surface, and the depth is becoming evident. Clearly it was I who was shallow, not the writers.

Stoicism is well worth study, and something I will pursue this year.

Wikipedia tells us that, “…the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how they behaved… if someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of kindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy—to examine one’s own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.”

Which appeals to me because I also believe – and have always believed in – the greater good. Or more precisely to help the greater good. To do good; to contribute to the well-being of the community; to share in the burdens and shoulder the responsibilities for the benefit of all. It’s why I entered politics. It’s why I am running for a role on council again.

Aurelius wrote in the opening of Meditations, Book II (Hays’ trans.):

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The 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.

Such wisdom. I wish I was wise enough to practice it without effort, naturally and without guile or self-delusion. Emotions tend to overcome the more noble aspirations sometimes. But like everything else in life, it takes practice to achieve mastery. I’ll print that quote and post it over my computer screen, to read every time I come across another angry, vituperative comment or blog post. Maybe that sort of calm neutrality will seep into me by osmosis.

Marcus Aurelius also told us that we are human, and our actions are not always great or noble, not always wise or even good. We are imperfect. We will fail, we will fall. That is our lot. But that doesn’t mean we should not strive to be better; strive to be moral, just and ethical in all things. We get up from the ground after our fall, and reach for the heights again. He told us:

Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly — and fully embrace the pursuit you’ve embarked on.

We have a duty to ourselves, to our families, friends, our community, and to others, he told us. In Book V, he wrote that those responsibilities are more important than our own comfort or convenience:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

And then he added words that are highly appropriate for Roman politician and a modern municipal councillor alike; don’t let the anger, the fear, jealousy and the maliciousness of others rule your life:

If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature — along the road they share.

Powerful, moving and inspirational stuff. Sentiments I can aspire to.
* Pliny, in the dedication to his Natural Histories, quoted a comment by Cato that sometimes I think of when I am blogging:

…Cato… was open to the attacks of such as caught at reputation for themselves by detracting from the merits of others. And what does he say in his book? “I know, that when I shall publish what I have written, there will be many who will do all they can to depreciate it, and, especially, such as are themselves void of all merit; but I let their harangues glide by me.”

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  1. Here’s the opening of Book 12 from the 2002 translation by Hicks & Hicks (in The Emperor’s Handbook):

    All the good things you want someday to obtain can be yours today. Just get out of your own way. Put the past behind you and the future in the hands of God, and refer every present thought and action to piety and justice.

    This has a bit more religiosity than the other versions.

  2. Pingback: The Emperor's Handbook | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

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