Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
I must admit that I have a great deal of fondness in general for the Penguins classics series. Not only are they low-cost (although I borrowed this particular one from the library), but they often provide a maximum of writing and a minimum of annoying personal speculation that makes a book less easy to appreciate. The editor provides extensive endnotes (more on that anon), but notes in the book’s preface that the reader need not burden oneself with the complex context in which Marcus Aurelius wrote, a context that will not be very familiar to contemporary readers. The editor of this book deserves special credit for having given an excellent translation of an interesting ancient work and having done the work that is necessary to make that work easily understandable by contemporary readers without trying to force the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius on the reader. Many readers, especially those who come to this book and this author with a Christian background and perspective (as I do) will have at least some ambivalence about the author given his imperfections as well as his famous hostility towards Christianity, which led him to be among the earliest of Roman Emperors to conduct deliberate persecution of Christians around the Roman empire. Nobody’s perfect, though.
This book begins with a preface, chronology, introduction by the editor, one Diskin Clay, and suggestions for further reading. After that the meditations of Marcus Aurelius take up about 123 pages or so, which is rather short, but reflective of the book’s small print in general. The meditations are divided as they originally were into twelve “books” and separate reflections, some of which are short and extremely cryptic and some of which are as long as a short blog post and of the sort of material that a very literate and philosophical ancient blogging diarist would write. After that this book contains almost 100 pages of endnotes, some of which are deeply insightful in explaining who Marcus Aurelius was and what he was writing about, which is certainly deeply interesting material to read as well. After that there is an index of names, quotations, and a general index that help fill out the book. This book is an example of one where the notes to read are just about as worthwhile as the book itself, even if a great many of Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts can be understood without knowing about the political and philosophical context in which he wrote.
Reading this book is certainly an intriguing experience. There is something rather poignant about seeing the deeply private writings of an overly busy emperor who wrote as part of his own encouragement of his virtue that survived because others have (wisely and correctly) thought that his own private reflections, often very short and fragmentary, were worth reading and pondering. It is one of the deep ironies of history that the writings of a virulently anti-Christian author survived because the philosophical meditations he wrote were appealing to generations of philosophically-inclined Hellenistic Christians who shared at least some aspects of fondness for classical culture with the emperor despite many differences in belief and practice. The fact that this book endured to the present-day is a sign that at at least one point in our cultural history it was not required that works reflect the perspective of others for them to be appreciated on their own merits. As is frequently the case, Christians have proven to be far better friends of their enemies than has been the case in return. Marcus Aurelius inspired pagans to martyr Christians, while Christians copied his reflections and sought to learn what was profitable from them. Who better illustrates a life of virtue?