I am going to assume that you, dear reader, already know who Marcus Aurelius Antonius was. I have respect for both the intelligence and education of my readers, enough to feel I can avoid making pedantic explanations and reiterating his biography that is more fluently available on dozens or hundreds of better, more encyclopedic websites. No, this is not a treatise on him, or even on his Stoic philosophy. It’s a look at how six different translators rendered some parts of his book, Meditations.
But please humour me in allowing a little pedantry. Something must first be said about the book, about translation, and why I am writing this.
Ever play those “desert island” games? You know: where you have to come up with short lists of things you’d like to have with you, should you ever be stranded on a desert island (or stranded in a sinking submersible on the way to see the Titanic… too soon?). What would be your ten books? Albums? DVDs? Food recipes? Ex-lovers or spouses? That sort of thing. Puerile, sure, but also an amusing, informative exercise for self-awareness.
Well, among my ten most treasured books to take, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations has always been on the list. And I’ve been making those lists for a long time, at least in my own head. But which edition would I want with me?
I can’t recall exactly when I first encountered Meditations. Sometime in the late ’70s is my best guess. I know I had a Penguin paperback edition (translated by Maxwell Staniforth) in the early 1980s (I still have that edition, albeit not that particular copy). I’m not sure if I’ve actually read it cover-to-cover, but I’ve certainly picked it up and browsed through it at random, many, many times. Enough times that I believe I’ve read it all. And yet I still read it. And I still buy translations… only recently I received the latest version to reach the bookstores (Waterfield; see below), which prompted this post.
I also can’t recall exactly when I began to read seriously about Stoic philosophy, including the works of Seneca, Cicero, and Epictetus but mostly it’s been in the past decade, maybe two. Some of us find solace and insight in philosophy as we age, more so than when we were younger: I have more time and (I hope) gained enough wisdom these days to assess more of the meaning of life, hence my reading of the classics. I wrote some time ago these words:
Edward Craig, in his book, A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, lists the three Big Questions as, How ought we to live? What really exists? How do we know? There are others, of course, depending on who you ask, including: why is there something instead of nothing? Do we have free will? Why is there evil? What happens when we die? Does anything exist outside perception? Why are we here? How are we to govern/be governed? And so on. All questions that seem to increasingly occupy my time as I age. Once you retire, you have more time to think about them. You’re not so preoccupied with questions like how do I make money? Who will my partner be? Should I buy this car or that one? Where shall I drink tonight? The more mundane issues of daily life are already sorted, at least for the most part in my life.
Some things, like philosophy, take a lifetime to master, a lesson as old as history itself. Geoffrey Chaucer opened his Parliament of Fowls with these immortal words:
The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.
Th’ assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne;
(The life so short, the craft so long to learn,
The assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The fearful joy that slips away in turn…)
There was a fascinating article in BigThink published late in 2022, titled, The brain undergoes a great “rewiring” after age 40. It noted,
The gathered evidence suggests that in the fifth decade of life (that is, after a person turns 40), the brain starts to undergo a radical “rewiring” that results in diverse networks becoming more integrated and connected over the ensuing decades, with accompanying effects on cognition… By the time we reach our 80s, the brain tends to be less regionally specialized and instead broadly connected and integrated.
It seems like this synergy would be a positive change, the brain becoming more of a gestalt than fragmented… that is, until you read further:
“Older adults tend to show less flexible thinking, such as forming new concepts and abstract thinking, lower response inhibition, as well as lower verbal and numeric reasoning,” the reviewers noted. “These executive function changes can be seen first in adults in their fifth decade of life, consistent with the findings of the systematic review that functional network connectivity changes reach their inflection point in the fourth and fifth decade.”
Which, perhaps, explains why so many older adults drift into dreary, hidebound conservativism (political and social) far from the more radical views of their youth. I find personally that as I age, my brain is as eager to learn more and new things as it ever was, but has a better, deeper appreciation of what I learn (although can’t always retain the details as thoroughly or as long). But that’s a digression for another post (I, for one, seem to be moving more to the left, politically and find today’s conservatism repulsively selfish, toxic, and petty… but let’s come back to that thought later).
Even things I learned in my youthful past are illuminated in different, more revealing ways when I look at them now. And I also think that people like Marcus, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Russell, and Chaucer disprove the idea that everyone’s older brain becomes this sort of inflexible, stodgy, unresponsive lump. Some of us may gain wisdom and insight as we age (well, I’m still hoping to…) and continue learning. Anyway, back to Marcus Aurelius.
I’ve written about my appreciation of Marcus in the past*, but this is (or will be one I stop meandering) about translations of his work. And, yes, I have written about translations in the past, too. It’s an art I find fascinating, subtle, and exciting. It’s the reason I have several different translations of Meditations, a dozen translations of Horace, several of Cicero and Seneca, and 41 translations of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Words matter and how any word or phrase is translated from another language into English is significant. Even how a single word is translated can affect one’s entire perception of any work (as I wrote about in this post).
I have the following print editions of Meditations from which I will draw my examples (arranged by date of original publication):
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Spiritual Teachings and Reflections, translated by George Long, Watkins Publishing, 2006. The original Long translation dates from 1871, and because it is out of copyright, his version is frequently reprinted in both inexpensive and coffee-table editions;
- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin Classics, 1987 (first published 1964);
- The Emperor’s Handbook: Marcus Aurelius, translated by Scot and David Hicks, Scribner, 2002;
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays, Modern Library, 2002. Arguably my favourite edition because of its modern style;
- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations with Selected Correspondence, translated by Robin Hard, Oxford World Classics, 2011;
- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, the Annotated Edition, translated by Robin Waterfield, Basic Books, 2021. This is my latest acquisition and the reason for this post.
I also have digital editions translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (2008; based on the Robert Foulis translation of 1742, from which I will also draw excerpts), Meric Casaubon (the first English edition; 1634), and Jeremy Collier (1887). Plus I also have: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, by Donald Robertson, St. Martin’s Press, 2019.**
I do not have the 1916 Loeb bilingual edition (Loeb #58, titled The Communings With Himself, translated by C. R. Haines) yet, but am always looking for a secondhand copy I can afford (a rather poorly scanned copy is available online here and another one is here). Donations of a copy or towards its purchase are welcome.***
It cannot be stressed too much or too often that it is important to read the introductions and translator’s notes to all of these volumes because these contain much valuable information and insight into both the text and its author, and often a worthwhile explanation of Stoicism. Context is important. Marcus’ Stoicism was mixed with views on Epicureanism and other philosophical views.
Meditations was not intended as a book for publication, but merely as notes to himself; Marcus was not a philosopher, but rather a lifelong student of philosophy who used his notebooks to remind himself about his studies much like a diary. As such, it has a sense of being real, being raw and unfiltered, not the sort of self-aggrandizing, bloviating piffle one finds in such self-help books as Jordan Peterson’s truly awful book, 12 Rules For Life. Meditations is more like Montaigne’s Essays, in being full of inner, self-directed thoughts.
Marcus wrote in Greek, not Latin, so even my minuscule Latin can’t help me figure out his writing. Greek was the language in his day of philosophy, diplomacy, and culture, much like French would be many centuries later, and English is today. Since he was writing for himself, not for publication, Marcus’ Greek was terse; not the flowery style of formal writing. Translator Robin Hard wrote, “It can be crabbed, and awkward, and sometimes obscure.” Some of the entries also contain references to contemporary people or events that remain unknown to modern translators. But, as Hard also notes, “many of the more eloquent passages… are effective and memorable.”
So let’s look at a few excerpts so you can compare styles and words. Start with the opening line of Book 8:56, one still relevant to today’s politics (and a message to conservatives who insist on telling others how to live and behave):
- To my own free will the free will of my neighbour is just as indifferent as his breath and his flesh (George Long).
- My neighbour’s will is of no greater concern to my will than his breath or his flesh (Maxwell Staniforth).
- My neighbour’s power to choose has no more to do with my freedom of choice than his breath and flesh (Hicks and Hicks).
- Other people’s wills are as independent of mine as their breath and bodies (Hays).
- To my elective power, the elective power of another is indifferent, as his animal life, or his flesh is (Hutcheson and Moor).
- To my own free will, the free will of my neighbour is as much a matter of indifference as his breath and his flesh (Hard).
- To my will, my neighbour’s will is just as much a matter of indifference as his spirit and his flesh (Waterfield).
I’m not sure about Waterfield’s choice of spirit instead of breath, since they strike me as connotating different ideas (“spirit” leads to spiritual and a more religious sense that doesn’t sit well with me). “Elective power” just seems odd and overly pedantic, but I like “power to choose” for “free will.” While YMMV, I lean towards the Hicks’ and Hays’ translations.
Here’s Book 4:22:
- Do not be whirled about, but in every moment have respect to justice, and on the occasion of every impression maintain the faculty of comprehension [or understanding] (Long).
- Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet: when an impulse stirs, first see that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty (Staniforth).
- Stop dithering around. In every confrontation, render what is just; from every impression, exact what is true (Hicks and Hicks).
- Not to be driven this way and that, but always to behave with justice and see things as they are (Hays).
- Don’t suffer the mind to wander. Keep justice in view in every design. And in all imaginations which may arise, preserve the judging faculty safe (Hutcheson and Moor).
- Do not wander astray in your mind, but with regard to every impulse deliver what is right, and with regard to every idea that presents itself preserve your power of judgement (Hard).
- Don’t stray, but do what’s right whenever you’re moved to act, and stick with what’s clear and certain whenever you think (Waterfield).
I lean towards Waterfield and Hays here. I don’t like Hicks’ use of “dithering around” and Hard’s sentence is clumsily constructed. Staniforth seems turgid.
Here’s Book 5:22, with a lesson in the first part that could be applied to those Talibangelist anti-abortionists who enjoy punishing women who don’t share their myopic, pseudo-Christian views:
- That which does no harm to the state, does no harm to the citizen. In the case of every appearance of harm, apply this rule, if the state is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed. But if the state is harmed, thou must not be angry with him who does harm to the state. Show him where his error is (Long).
- What is not harmful to the city cannot harm the citizen. In every fancied case of harm, apply the rule, ‘If the city is not harmed, I am not harmed either.’ But if the city should indeed be harmed, never rage at the culprit: rather, find out at what point his vision failed him (Staniforth).
- What does not hurt the community cannot hurt the individual. Every time you think you’ve been wronged, apply this rule: if the community isn’t hurt by it, then neither am I. But what if the community is hurt? Then don’t be angry with the person who caused the injury. Just help him to see the mistake (Hicks and Hicks).
- If it does not harm the community, it does not harm its members. When you think you’ve been harmed, apply this rule: If the community isn’t harmed by it, neither am I. And if it is, anger is not the answer. Show the offender where he went wrong (Hays).
- What is not hurtful to the state or city, cannot hurt the citizen. Make use of this rule upon every conception of any thing as hurting you. If the city is not hurt by it, I cannot be hurt. If the city should receive hurt by it, yet we should not be angry at him who hurt it, but shew him what he has neglected, or how he has done wrong (Hutcheson and Moor).
- What causes no harm to the city causes no harm to the citizen. Every time that the idea occurs to you that you have been harmed, apply this rule: ‘If the community is not harmed by this, neither am I.’ But if the community really is harmed, do not be angry with the person who is responsible, but show him what he has failed to see (Hard).
- Anything that does not harm the state does no harm to its citizens either. Whenever you think you’ve been harmed, apply this criterion: if it leaves the state unharmed, it does me no harm either. On the other hand, in any case of actual harm to the state, one shouldn’t get angry with the person who’s responsible for it, but show him what he’s overlooking (Waterfield).
Several things stand out. First is the choice of state, city, or community. In Marcus’ day, the city (Rome) and state were synonymous. Machiavelli often used state when he also meant city, but in his day there were independent city-states in Italy like Florence. Both community and city seem too small a word since both can be local and constrained by geography. I would prefer something like nation or country to encompass a larger concept but will accept state as a reasonable choice (and even if the reader confuses state with a smaller division akin to a province — like the state of Texas — the advice still applies). Here I tend to like Waterfield (Long’s use of thee and thou is a bit too biblical for my taste).
Also, the notion of harm is not defined but clearly not meant as violence or destruction because Marcus advises education over punishment. Harm here suggests something individual, something not orthodox, a personal choice of behaviour rather than something violent, hence his advice.
Here’s Book 9:27, with some advice to people who are being insulted or attacked by others (perhaps like our Prime Minister under constant, unrelenting attack by the puerile, rage-farming Pierre Poilievre):
- When another blames thee or hates thee, or when men say about thee anything injurious, approach their souls, penetrate within, and see what kind of men they are. Thou wilt discover that there is no reason to take any trouble that these men may have this or that opinion about thee (Long).
- When those about you are venting their censure or malice upon you, or raising any sort of injurious clamour, approach and penetrate into their souls, and see what manner of men they are. You will find little enough reason for all your painstaking efforts to win their good opinion (Staniforth).
- When men hate or blame you, or say hurtful things about you, look deeply into their hearts and see what kind of men they are. You’ll see how unnecessary it is to strain after their good opinion (Hicks and Hicks).
- When you face someone’s insults, hatred, whatever… look at his soul. Get inside him. Look at what sort of person he is. You’ll find you don’t need to strain to impress him (Hays).
- When another reproaches or hates you, or utters any thing to that purpose; go to their souls: enter in there; and look what kind of men they are. You will see that you ought not to disturb yourself, in order to procure any opinion of theirs concerning you (Hutcheson and Moor).
- When another blames or hates you or people give voice to such feelings, look to their souls, enter into them, and see what sort of people they are. You will then see that there is no need for you to tear yourself apart so that they will come to form this or that opinion of you (Hard).
- When you’re the object of disapproval or loathing, or their words express those kind of feelings, go to their souls. Go below the surface and see what they’re like. You’ll see that there’s no need to derange yourself in order to get them to think of you in a certain way (Waterfield).
First, I don’t like the word soul as much as heart; while both are metaphors for the interior person, soul has a religious connotation I resist (aside from the metaphor, souls are, like angels, demons, and gods, imaginary and dependent of which particular religion one follows). Besides, even if one believes in a soul, looking into the black, shrivelled soul of someone like Trump or Poilievre would be a nightmarish experience. Yes, hearts can be equally wizened, but there isn’t that sense of hellishness (another metaphor) about it.
I prefer the Hicks and Hicks version here. Both Hard and Waterfield feel clumsy and overly lengthy. Hays is brief but I find his “whatever…” disconcerting and too pop-culture-ish. Long is again too biblical, but change thee and thou to the modern you and it’s not bad.
And finally, Book 6:21, in which Marcus says that rigid ideological belief or action is harmful, and one should change when presented with facts that contradict beliefs (a lesson lost on most conservatives, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, science-deniers, creationists, and MAGA-hatters…):
- If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change: for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance (Long).
- If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm (Staniforth).
- Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change — for it is the truth I seek, and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance (Hicks and Hicks).
- If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance (Hays).
- If any one can convince me, or shew me, that my sentiments, or conduct, has been wrong; I will joyfully alter them. ’Tis truth I am searching for, which never hurts any man. But men are often hurt, by remaining in error and ignorance (Hutcheson and Moor).
- If anyone can give me good reason to think I am going astray in my thoughts or actions, I will gladly change my ways. For I seek the truth, which has never caused harm to anyone; no, the person who is harmed is the one who persists in his self-deception and ignorance (Hard).
- If someone can prove me wrong and show me that something I thought or did was mistaken, I’ll gladly change, because my goal is the truth and the truth has never harmed anyone. The man who’s harmed is the one who persists in his own self-deception and ignorance (Waterfield).
Waterfield’s annotation includes the quote from Socrates (in Plato’s Apology) that, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Marcus doesn’t say, but it is worth adding, that we should examine our beliefs constantly because they are prone to becoming ossified unless we do. And he says he is happy to make the change.
Here, I like the Hicks and Hicks version, but I like the use of ‘self-deception’ in Hard and Waterfield because it underscores the individual responsibility to self-examination, as Socrates said. I don’t care for Hays’ use of self-deceit, because while deception and deceit are similar, deceit suggests malice and deliberately misleading. Deception suggests misguidance or misdirection without the intention to do evil (for example, while the convoy insurrections, anti-vaxxers, Trump and Poilievre may be accused of deceit, flat-earthers and many creationists are gullible victims of deception).
Also, there are some subtle differences between words like convince, persuade, refute (which suggests a formal debate or argument), and prove. I prefer convince and persuade as suggesting something less confrontational or argumentative than the others.
An important point here is that harm comes from persisting or remaining in ignorance once the truth or facts are known. Persisting suggests volition: deliberate self-ignorance, such as practiced by anti-vaxxers. Abiding or remaining may be through an inability to understand the facts, not a deliberate refusal to accept them.
And those are my examples. Again, which version would be best for a desert island game? That’s tough. While I like the Hays’ translation for its brevity, I am equally attracted to the Waterfield version for his copious notes. Fortunately for me, I need not chose any, because I am here at home with all of them in my personal library to consult and compare at my leisure.
* Including these previous posts:
- Marcus Aurelius
- The Emperor’s Handbook
- Marcus Aurelius and The Block
- Nope, That’s Not by Marcus Aurelius
- Stoic or Epicurean?
- The Subtle Art of Mark Manson
- Cicero, Seneca, and Confucius
** While not a separate translation, it references Meditations throughout. For me, Robertson’s book fails to deliver because he does not include direct quotations from any edition of Meditations in the text itself, although he draws his many lessons from it. The only references are endnotes, mostly to the Hard translation (Oxford Classics), at the back of the book that require readers to open a second volume to read. It’s more of a self-help book and, in general, that’s not a genre of book I appreciate. Robertson also has an annotated edition of the Long translation of Meditations, which, I suspect, would be a better purchase.
*** There is an online source for a large library of many of the older Loeb bilingual classics (all of them now in the public domain): the Loebolus. Many of the scans are of mediocre to poor quality, but this is an invaluable library for anyone looking to examine these volumes. Several of these older titles in the Loeb library have been replaced by the publisher with newer translations, for example, Horace’s Odes and Epodes.