Book Review: The Spiritual Teachings Of Marcus Aurelius

The Spiritual Teachings Of Marcus Aurelius, edited by Mark Forstater

This book is a lot more enjoyable to read if you don’t know much about Marcus Aurelius’ thinking and writing than if you do.  The author, who obviously is far more fond of stoicism than I am and of the delusion that the ancient and sterile and self-contradictory worldview is relevant to contemporaries in a way that biblical religion is not, does not make this book an easy one to enjoy.  On the one hand, Marcus Aurelius is certainly an enjoyable philosopher to read regardless of one’s background, given the fact that he had a lot of genuinely quirky and insightful things to say, but a book like this is not quite as groundbreaking as the editor would wish, and Aurelius is not quite as noble a figure as the editor would like the reader to believe.  Readers will come to a book like this with their own background knowledge and interests and perspective, and those who desire more from a book than fortune cookie advice that mimics much of the New Age Buddhist thought that is currently en vogue and want to know Marcus Aurelius’ thinking as he himself conceived it would do best to seek his sources in another form than this book.

This book of more than 250 pages is divided into two parts.  After acknowledgements and a preface, the author spends about 90 pages discussing the right way to live as if Marcus Aurelius was able to provide insightful examples as to how one should live that go beyond conventional morality.  It is in this part that the author attempts (not very successfully) to make the case for stoicism as a compelling worldview for contemporary readers.  The second part of the book, which takes up the majority of the book’s contents, is an edited and rearranged selection of what the author considers to be the most topical and relevant thinking of Marcus Aurelius.  This fortune cookie wisdom is divided into various sections, including living in the world (1), cultivating the self (2), the inner spirit (3), the universal mind (4), contemplating death (5), everything changes (6), being at one with nature (7), and peace is in your hands (8).  Each of these sections includes some of the short reflections that Marcus Aurelius wrote during his eventful and busy reign as Roman emperor, although not in the same context in which the author himself wrote down his private thoughts without any thought of publication.

This book is an example of an unfortunate but not very uncommon phenomenon in that those who seek to package a thinker’s writings to make them relevant often make them particularly dated.  After all, what is relevant to a particular time comes off as cliched and uninteresting to those who are bored with the perspectives of the past.  It was precisely Marcus Aurelius’ attempts to write in his time and with his own experiences and perspectives, even if I do not share them, that makes his writing compelling.  And this author views all of those quirks and individual elements as precisely that which is least worthwhile to share with the reader of this book.  Again, this book depends mainly on context.  To the extent that the editor of this work seeks to encourage others to share Marcus’ stoicism, he is doing the reader a great disservice.  If he had wished to convey something of the ancient philosopher emperor of Rome as he in fact was in all of his complexity, it would have been far easier to appreciate this book and endorse it to others, even those who are not as enamored with the classics as I am.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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