The Essential Marcus Aurelius, edited by Jacob Needleman and John P. Piazza
You know how it is when a musician who only had an album or two of material starts to look less impressive than otherwise when one has an essential greatest hits collection that makes a sketchy career look even sketchier? That is what we are dealing with here. I have mixed feelings about Marcus Aurelius and the way that so many people try to paint him as a particularly insightful ruler and moral exemplar when he was definitely someone far more questionable than is often seen as the case. When one is dealing with a writer who really only has two known works–namely his Meditations and the far lesser correspondence he kept up with one of his old instructors, Fronto, it is rather telling and unfortunate that this book only focuses on Aurelius’ fragmentary meditations even though the editors themselves say that the reader would be remiss to miss reading his correspondence as well, a task that would have been much easier had the editors included any of the more important passages from those letters as part of the “essential” writings of a thoughtful Roman emperor, which would have been an easy thing to do.
This slim volume is barely over 100 pages if one includes the glossary and suggestions for further reading, presenting a selection of some of Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts, more of the first few books than the latter ones. The editors begin this book with a discussion of Marcus Aurelius’ life and philosophy in such a way that it tries to present the emperor as not being as anti-Christian as he likely was while also giving a high deal of praise to his stoic philosophy, also more than he probably deserves. The various selections included a fair amount of the first six books or so of Aurelius’ meditations but fewer of the later ones, likely because such materials are far more tied into the personal history of the author and the editors only want to include material that has the timeless sort of quality that they would think that self-help reading audiences are looking for. And it should be noted that this book is far more notable for what it does not contain than what it does contain, in that nothing that is not a part of the Meditations is deemed by the editors as essential writings from Marcus Aurelius, which is likely mistaken.
It is not that this book is bad, because it is not. Truly, Marcus Aurelius is not a bad author and any book that contains his writing or a thoughtful discussion of his writing is going to be at least okay. Nevertheless, in a world where there are a great many books (quite a few of which I have read) that meet this standard, is this book truly essential? No, in fact I can safely say that this book is not even in the top 5 books of and about Marcus Aurelius that I have read in the past month. And I am sure that there are books that I have not read that would be very good as well. Given that kind of competition, this book is like a second-rate compilation of a writer with a very limited body of work, and as ambivalently as I feel about Marcus Aurelius, I think he deserve better than that. Whether or not that is a bad thing, this is the sort of book that only includes obvious high points that some readers (myself included) have read quite a few times already, without the inclusion of anything other than the most obvious material.