Friday, January 27, 2012

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Ancient musings, timeless wisdom
Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome, may be the closest mankind has ever come to producing the philosopher king that Plato envisioned in The Republic. A reluctant ruler and a reluctant warrior, much of his reign was spent in battle, defending the frontiers of the empire from the “barbarian” hordes. Fortunately for us, he carried a notebook along on his military campaigns, and thus we have the Meditations. Marcus’s writings reveal him to be the last and greatest of the classical Stoics. Stoicism is a school of thought that asserts we have no control over our lives, only control over our perceptions. It advocates that the best life is the life that is lived in accordance with nature (not “nature” as in grass and trees, but “nature” as in the order of the universe). By concentrating one’s thoughts and choices on what is good and virtuous, and disregarding the unimportant distractions of everyday life (even life and death are said to be neither good nor bad, but “indifferent”), we can avoid negative emotions like fear, anger, grief, and frustration, and live a life of happiness and tranquility. That’s an oversimplification, of course. If you really want to know what Stoicism is and how it works read Epictetus or Seneca. What Marcus provides us with are the reflections of a man who studied and lived the Stoic life, and was its ultimate exemplar. Even if you don’t buy into Stoicism, or have no interest in Philosophy with a capital P, you can still find inspiration and solace in the Meditations, as Marcus instructs us in dealing justly with others, overcoming emotional hardship, living life to the fullest by overcoming the fear of death, and resigning oneself to the insignificance of man in the universe.

The Meditations are divided into twelve books. Each book contains anywhere from 16 to 75 numbered paragraphs, ranging in length from a sentence to a page. The paragraphs are arranged without regard to sequence or subject matter. This haphazard method of compilation is really the book’s only flaw. What the Meditations has always needed is a good index, but I’ve never found a volume that has one.

The Kindle edition that’s offered for free on Amazon, which is the same as the one downloadable from Project Gutenberg, contains one major flaw. There is an interactive table of contents which allows you to click on the twelve books; that’s fine. Following that, however, there is another clickable table of contents that lists the first line of every paragraph in the Meditations. That’s a wonderful idea, in theory, but in practice it’s a major pain. This extended table of contents is written as one long page of links, so it takes forever to load. You spend minutes staring at a blank screen waiting for the type to show up, then minutes more until you can actually move your cursor. Sometimes the screen saver kicks in before you even get to that point. I wish someone would go into the file and break that table up into twelve separate pages so it might actually be useful. In this edition there are no notes to the text, other than a few translator’s notes. Unless you know a heck of a lot about ancient Rome and Stoicism, notes are pretty necessary for a book like this. There’s a small glossary of proper names, and an appendix of correspondence between Marcus and his teacher Fronto. I like having a portable copy of the Meditations on my Kindle, but this is one case where the e-book is no substitute for a paper edition.

The Wordsworth Classics series is an excellent collection of inexpensive paperbacks. They are beautifully typeset for easy reading, and usually well-edited. Their edition of the Meditations contains extensive endnotes, plus a valuable introduction by Christopher Gill, an afterword by Matthew Arnold, and an essay on “Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism” featuring excerpts from Epictetus and contemporary scholars of Stoicism.
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