First page of translation by Graves
Meditations (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, Ta eis heauton, literally "thoughts/writings addressed to himself") is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor 161–180 CE, setting forth his ideas on Stoic philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. It is possible that large portions of the work were written at Sirmium, where he spent much time planning military campaigns from 170 to 180. Some of it was written while he was positioned at Aquincum on campaign in Pannonia, because internal notes tell us that the second book was written when he was campaigning against the Quadi on the river Granova (modern-day Hron) and the third book was written at Carnuntum. It is not clear that he ever intended the writings to be published, so the title Meditations is but one of several commonly assigned to the collection. These writings take the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs.
Structure and themes
The Meditations is divided into 12 books that chronicle different periods of Marcus's life. Each book is not in chronological order and it was written for no one but himself. The style of writing that permeates the text is one that is simplified, straightforward, and perhaps reflecting Marcus's Stoic perspective on the text. Depending on the English translation, Marcus's style is not viewed as anything regal or belonging to royalty, but rather a man among other men which allows the reader to relate to his wisdom.
A central theme to "Meditations" is to analyze your judgement of self and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As he said "You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite". He advocates finding one's place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. It seems at some points in his work that we are all part of a greater construct thus taking a collectivist approach rather than having an individualist perspective. Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as "Being a good man".
His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos. This allows one to rise above faulty perceptions of "good" and "bad".
Reception and influence
Marcus Aurelius has been lauded for his capacity "to write down what was in his heart just as it was, not obscured by any consciousness of the presence of listeners or any striving after effect". Gilbert Murray compares the work to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions and St. Augustine's Confessions. Though Murray criticizes Marcus for the "harshness and plainness of his literary style", he finds in his Meditations "as much intensity of feeling...as in most of the nobler modern books of religion, only [with] a sterner power controlling it". "People fail to understand Marcus", he writes, "not because of his lack of self-expression, but because it is hard for most men to breathe at that intense height of spiritual life, or, at least, to breathe soberly".
D.A. Rees calls the Meditations "unendingly moving and inspiring", but does not offer them up as works of original philosophy. Bertrand Russell found them contradictory and inconsistent, evidence of a "tired age" where "even real goods lose their savour". Using Marcus as an example of greater Stoic philosophy, he found their ethical philosophy to contain an element of "sour grapes". "We can't be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn't matter being unhappy". Both Russell and Rees find an element of Marcus' Stoic philosophy in Kant's own philosophical system.
German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel offers a critique of Stoicism that follows similar lines, albeit covering different trajectories. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel attacks the preoccupation with the inner self as a severing, fatalistic barrier to consciousness. A philosophy that reduces all states of harm or injustice to emotional states "could only appear on the scene in a time of universal fear and bondage." The Stoic refusal to meet the world is anathema to Life, a central value in Hegel's philosophical work: "whether on the throne or in chains, in the utter dependence of its individual existence, its aim is to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from the bustle of existence..." M.L. Clarke concurs in his historical work on philosophical ideas, The Roman Mind, where he states "[p]olitical liberty could hardly flourish after so many years of despotism and the indifference to public affairs which it bred. And philosophy fostered the same spirit."
- If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. (VIII. 47, trans. George Long)
- A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, "And why were such things made in the world?" (VIII. 50, trans. George Long)
- Soon you'll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial. (V. 33, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors. (III. 7, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on. (V. 9, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged. If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong. (IV. 7, trans. Méric Casaubon)
- [...] As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes has no value for him. (III. 4, trans. Maxwell Staniforth)
- Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres. (VI. 29, trans. Maxwell Staniforth)
- Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, [...] Take away the complaint, [...] and the hurt is gone (IV. 7, trans. George Long)
- Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you. (V. 8, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good. (IV. 17, trans. George Long)
- Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone's lips: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are 'out of sight, out of mind.' In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself. (IV. 33, trans. Scot and David Hicks)
- "Why do you hunger for length of days? The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.”
- Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look at the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations? (IV. 50, trans. George Long)
- When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. (II. 1, trans. Gregory Hays)
Some popular English translations include:
- Francis Hutcheson and James Moore (1742). The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008.
- George Long (1862) The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; reprinted many times, including in Vol. 2 of the Harvard Classics.
- C. R. Haines (1916) Marcus Aurelius. Loeb Classical Library. ISBN 0-674-99064-1
- A. S. L. Farquharson (1944) Marcus Aurelius Meditations. Everyman's Library reprint edition (1992) ISBN 0-679-41271-9. Oxford World's Classics revised edition (1998) ISBN 0-19-954059-4
- Maxwell Staniforth (1969) Meditations. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044140-9
- Gregory Hays (2002) Meditations. Random House. ISBN 0-679-64260-9
- C. Scot Hicks, David V. Hicks (2002) The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-3383-2.
- Martin Hammond (2006) Meditations. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044933-7
- Jacob Needleman, John P. Piazza (2008) The Essential Marcus Aurelius. J P Tarcher. ISBN 978-1-58542-617-1
- "Close imitation of Attic was not required because Marcus Aurelius wrote in a philosophical context without thought of publication. Galen's many writings in what he calls 'the common dialect' are another excellent example of non-atticizing but highly educated Greek." Simon Swain, (1996), Hellenism and Empire, page 29. Oxford University Press.
- John Sellars, "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" Marcus Aurelius October 23rd 2011
- John Roberts, "Oxford Reference Online" Aurelius,Marcus October 23rd 2011
- Murray, Gilbert (2002) . Five Stages of Greek Religion (3rd Edition ed.). Dover Publications. pp. 168–9. ISBN 0-486-42500-2.
- D.A. Rees, Introduction pp. xvii. In Farquhrson, A. S. L. (1992) . Meditations. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-41271-9.
- Russell, Bertrand (2004) . History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge. pp. 248–56. ISBN 0-415-32505-6.
- Grant, Michael (1993) . The Climax of Rome: The Final Achievements of the Ancient World, AD 161-337. London: Weidenfeld. p. 139. ISBN 0-297-81391-9.
- The Washington Post Bestseller List June 9th, 2002
- Mac Suibhne, S. (2009). "'Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you': Marcus Aurelius, reflective practitioner". Reflective Practice 10 (4): 429–436. doi:10.1080/14623940903138266.
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- The Thoughts Of The Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. translated by George Long, at Wikisource
- Multiple editions of the Meditations at the Internet Archive
- Audio recording of George Long's translation at LibriVox.org