Meditations

Meditations‘ (‘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 (the Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment).

It is not clear that he ever intended the writings to be published, so the title 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.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the ‘Meditations’ in ‘highly educated’ Koine Greek (the language of scholarly writing at the time) as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. It is possible that large portions of the work were written at Sirmium (modern-day Serbia), where he spent much time planning military campaigns from 170 to 180. Some of it was written while he was positioned at Aquincum (modern-day Budapest) on campaign in Pannonia (the regional Roman province), because internal notes tell us that the second book was written when he was campaigning against the Quadi (a Germanic tribe) on the river Granova (modern-day Hron, a tributary of the Danube) and the third book was written at Carnuntum (modern-day Lower Austria).

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 of the books is the call to analyze one’s judgement thyself and others and developing a cosmic perspective. As Aurelius 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. He argues 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 avoiding 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, he says, 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 (the divine animating principle pervading the Universe according to the Stoics) 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.’

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 autobiography of the same name. 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. English classicist Michael Grant called Marcus Aurelius ‘the noblest of all the men who, by sheer intelligence and force of character, have prized and achieved goodness for its own sake and not for any reward.’

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