Monday, January 18, 2016

Book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations are a fascinating set of fragmentary personal notes from the Roman Emperor Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180), who was a student and practitioner of Stoicism.  It's not clear how these notes were used by the emperor if indeed they were used at all, or what the intention was when Marcus was putting them together, but publication for a wider audience doesn't appear to have been a goal. Bearing that in mind, we should count ourselves lucky the journals survived and were discovered in later years.

The format of the notes - a hodge-podge collection of reflections, exhortations, addresses to the self, philosophic reminders, aphorisms and excerpts - suggests Marcus was creating his own personal reference guide to help guide him along his life's journey, and what a journey it was. His father passed away early on and Marcus was adopted first by his grandfather and then his uncle, who became the Emperor of Rome after Hadrian's passing. When his uncle subsequently passed away, the baton was handed to Marcus and Lucius Verus Commodus (Lucius had also been adopted by the uncle), and together the two brothers ruled as joint-emperors. (Click here for more on Marcus Aurelius' biography.)

Marcus Aurelius appears to have enjoyed a relatively successful reign but he didn't have it easy. There were revolts, invasions, famines and plagues, and the emperor also suffered personal misfortunes, including illnesses and the death of thirteen out of fourteen children. Against this backdrop, and with Marcus clearly finding a mental home in the doctrines of Stocisim, it is no surprise that the Meditations comes across in parts as emotionless, cold and austere. The striking surprise though is just how much material remains applicable for people aspiring to live a good life that is led by the higher self. Themes touched upon include: death; loss; glory; impermanence; fate; self-control; indifference and triviality; reason; fame; admirable traits; loss; character; triviality and perspective. I found much to contemplate and will try to integrate at least some of the widsom into my own thinking.

I highly recommend the Penguin edition of the Meditations. It has a great preface and introduction and the reference Notes are also very well put together. I will provide quotes from the book in future posts.


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