The Emperor’s Handbook


Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of the Roman Empire. He lived 121-180 CE and died while on campaign in Germany. Like many Roman thinkers of his day, he followed the popular Stoic philosophy and his writing became an important document in the late Stoic phase of classical antiquity.

While he ruled, Marcus Aurelius kept notes – written in Greek – about his thoughts and beliefs, as a guide for his own life and behaviour, applying his Stoic beliefs to his everyday life.

These thoughts were never intended for public reading or publication such as it was in that time (since the printing press would not come into use for roughly another 1,300 years, for works to circulate they needed to be hand-copied). He titled them simply “For Myself.” They have become known today as 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”.

After his death, his writings were saved – by whom, no one knows for sure – and shared. And copied over the centuries. Copies in Greek survived until the mid-16th century when it was first printed (1558). It was translated into English shortly after and had undergone numerous translations ever since.

For me, Meditations has been a source of inspiration and wisdom since I first discovered it, sometime around four decades ago. It’s one of the works I consider indispensable for a cultured personal library, a title which I would not want to be without. Harvard Business Review has named the Meditations one of the 11 essential books every young leader should read. I will add to that by suggesting it is one of the top dozen books any civilized person should read.

My early experience with the work came through older translations – the 19th century George Long and later the Haines translation of 1916, then the 1964 Staniforth (Penguin) edition, at least two of which I still own – but this year I picked up the newer versions by Hays and this weekend got the one by brothers David Hicks and Scot Hicks. These latter two both significantly modernize and make the Meditations more accessible to today’s readers.

Here’s a good synopsis of chapters in the Hicks & Hicks translation. The author notes, “Marcus regarded obstacles as opportunities for the exercise of reason.” He believed in rising to any challenge with dignity and integrity.

Business Insider rather simplistically reduces the book down to “seven timeless lessons:”

  1. Don’t worry about people whose actions don’t affect the common good.
  2. Live in the present.
  3. Refrain from imposing your feelings onto reality.
  4. Turn an obstacle into an opportunity.
  5. Find peace within yourself.
  6. Don’t resent people for their character.
  7. You are the only person responsible for your happiness.

George Mentz on Benzinga at least broadens the perspective by offering, “The 33 Business Success Principles of Caesar Marcus Aurelius.”

Both of these miss a basic point: Marcus was not writing for CEOs or managers. Nor for generals, marketing executive, brand managers or mountain climbers. He was writing for himself. Yes, you can apply many of his aphorisms to business, management, to Olympic training or to military leadership – almost any field of endeavour can absorb some of his words and find inspiration. But they were directed at the inner man; as personal reminders, not as guides for any career or practice.

A reviewer on Amazon who compares the Hays and Staniforth versions says:

The 1964 version is regal, while the 2002 (Hays’) version is Aurelius writing, quickly, in a spiral notebook while on horseback, the equivalent of “memo to myself.”
Reading this book is like taking a cold shower, or visiting a favorite bartender, who insists on serving you coffee, not drink. Hays has brought us a Marcus Aurelius who puts his hand on your shoulder, looks you in the eye, and tells you like it is: Get over yourself. You can’t change the world. Do your best and realize you are of this earth. Human experience is muddy, so what? This book is best read in tough times, when you could use a little steel in your spine.

Blake Morrison, writing his review of the Hays translation in The Guardian, noted:

Marcus wrote his Meditations as a series of pensées or spiritual exercises. How far they can make you feel better will depend on your belief in human progress. Marcus is clear on the point. All of this has happened before – the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. People repeat themselves from generation to generation – “marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping others will die, complaining…” Nothing new under the sun, and nothing we can do to change it: “You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it.” Life isn’t pretty. It’s like rotting meat in a bag. Or like the baths – “oil, sweat, dirt, grayish water, all of it disgusting”. In short, it’s a “wretched, whining monkey life”. But once you accept this, says Marcus, you’ll cheer up.

Morrison isn’t entire flattering about all of the author’s ideas, however, adding:

Some of Marcus’s moral judgments are batty, including his claim that wrongdoing harms the agent more than the victim (is that true of rape, torture or murder?) and his idea that sins committed from desire are worse than those committed in anger (which makes it worse to sleep with your neighbour’s wife than to stab her to death). Some of his entries read like new year’s resolutions: “Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I’m too busy, unless I really am.” Others require a leap of the imagination, such as the injunction “Not to be obsessed with quail-fighting” – few of us are, but we know about addiction.

So okay, it’s not the perfect guide to daily life. You can’t embrace everything Marcus writes about equally, or sometimes at all. Life isn’t so simple that one book can guide everyone down all the paths and past all the traps we face. But even those that you eschew should be given their due consideration, if for nothing more than, as the mental exercise Marcus so enjoyed. Don’t pass over what may seem “batty” – contemplate what Marcus might have meant by it. Dig for meaning.

The book – such as it was – was never intended to be anything more than personal reminders, private thoughts; the sticky notes of ancient Rome. Sure, it’s open to criticism. Who or what isn’t? What matters to me is that it has within its pages aphorisms that remind me, too, how to live.

Unlike Montaigne’s lengthy and often rambling essays, Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts are presented in short, sharp pieces arranged in 12 brief chapters. You can read them at random, opening the pages anywhere, or from cover to cover, as a guide through the stages of life. I prefer the former method, enjoying the snippets, but never forget that they are part of an overarching philosophy.

So how do the Hays and Hicks & Hicks versions compare? First is in the naming. The Hicks brothers call their translation The Emperor’s Handbook (Scribner, 2002), which sets it apart from other translations which stick to Meditations. Here are a few samples of the renderings, with Hicks & Hicks first, then Hays, and with George Long’s version following:*

Book III.4:

Purge your mind of all aimless thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill.

You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious.

Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when thou dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility. For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as these,—What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving, and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from the observation of our own ruling power.

Book V.3:

If it is good to say or do something, then it is even better to be criticized for having said or done it.

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.

Judge every word and deed which are according to nature to be fit for thee; and be not diverted by the blame which follows from any people, nor by their words, but if a thing is good to be done or said, do not consider it unworthy of thee. For those persons have their peculiar leading principle and follow their peculiar movement; which things do not thou regard, but go straight on, following thy own nature and the common nature; and the way of both is one.

Book VI.6:

The best revenge is not to do as they do.

The best revenge is not to be like that.

The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like [the wrong-doer].

Book VII.3:

Bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.

But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.

It is thy duty then in the midst of such things to show good humor and not a proud air; to understand however that every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.

Book XI.15:

Studied sincerity is a stiletto. The wolf’s friendship for the lamb is a trap. Avoid these above all. Goodness, sincerity, kindliness – the eyes betray these qualities. They cannot be counterfeited or disguised.

But a false straightforwardness is like a knife in the back. False friendship is the worst. Avoid it at all costs. If you’re honest and straightforward and mean well, it should show in your eyes. It should be unmistakable.

But the affectation of simplicity is like a crooked stick. Nothing is more disgraceful than a wolfish friendship [false friendship]. Avoid this most of all. The good and simple and benevolent show all these things in the eyes, and there is no mistaking.

The Hicks & Hicks translation may not be literal here, but it certainly is a lot sharper.

Book XII.33:

Are my guiding principles healthy and robust? On this hangs everything. The rest, whether I can control it or not, is but smoke and the gray ashes of the dead.

How the mind conducts itself. It all depends on that. All the rest is within its power, or beyond its control – corpses and smoke.

How does the ruling faculty make use of itself? for all lies in this. But everything else, whether it is in the power of thy will or not, is only lifeless ashes and smoke.

“Are my guiding principles healthy and robust? On this hangs everything.” This alone could become my own guiding principle, one I already strive towards.**

Are either Hays or Hicks & Hicks translation definitively superior? I don’t think it is always so, but I can only judge by my impressions, not being able to read classical Greek. Both bring the work into a modern form accessible to any reader today, with resonance and clarity often lacking in older, fustier translations like Long’s.

However, the Hicks & Hicks version seems more pithy, more robust, more quotable, while Hays retains more of the scholarly approach. Jeff Shaw, reviewing their version for the Naval War College, called it, “…possibly the most robust translation yet of this great philosophical work.” Donald Kagan Hillhouse, Professor of History and Classics at Yale University, wrote, “The wisdom contained in this handbook has been admired through the ages. The Hicks brothers’ excellently clear translation happily now makes it accessible.”

If I had to choose between the two as a gift for someone not already familiar with the Meditations (should there actually be such a beast; mayhap someone raised on TV and not on reading…), I would favour the Hicks & Hicks version for its clarity and punch. If the reader wanted a more scholarly introduction with more extensive supporting notes, then Hays is better. But like with other important titles in my library that were written in other languages, I suggest you own both. I personally like to have multiple translations so I can study the variations and derive what I hope is the essence of the content.


*  You might also want to compare these with the 1635 translation by Meric Casaubon’s version and the James Moor/Francis Hutcheson edition. Both of these are rather more difficult and, by today’s standards, somewhat clumsy.

** The Moor/Hutcheson version offers this convoluted translation: “What use does the governing part make of itself? On this, all depends. Other things, whether dependent on your choice, or not, are but dead carcases, and smoke.” Staniforth’s mid-1960s’ translation renders it thus: “How is my soul’s helmsman going about his task? For in that lies everything. All else, within my control or beyond it, is dead bones and vapor.” Putting “soul” into the translation is problematic because it assumes as basic agreement on how religious terms are understood by the readers. I find the Hicks & Hicks translation of this line cleaner, simpler and more straightforward. You can find a commentary on this line by Russell McNeil here. However, that commentary is based on the Long translation and doesn’t strike me as entirely appropriate for later versions like Staniforth, Hays or Hicks & Hicks. This is always a problem when interpreting any single translation.

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