Book review: Meditations

Book cover for Meditations (Amazon Classics) by Marcus Aurelius

Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed an interest in ancient philosophies. More specifically, I’ve found Stoicism, which I was introduced to through Ryan Holiday’s writing and The Daily Stoic, to be particularly intriguing. It has shown me that the things humans do in our daily lives has evolved a lot throughout history, and it continues to change rapidly due to technology. However, the character traits of being a good person have not changed. The same values and principles that made up good character over two thousand years ago are still applicable today. What humans do has changed, but human nature has not. It reinforces the adage – “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

When reading Stoic philosophies, it is impossible to avoid references to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 AD – 180 AD, and Meditations is a collection of writings from his personal journals that reflect his thoughts during his time as emperor. Since most of my reading of Aurelius’ writing were excerpts from and interpretations of passages from Meditations, I felt is was best to read it on my own, to get it from the horse’s mouth.

Given the amount of time that has passed since Aurelius existence, there is considerable controversy over his reign as emperor. According to Machiavelli, Aurelius is considered the last of the Five Good Roman Emperors. In other historical writings, Aurelius is considered pedestrian, neither significantly growing or causing the decline of the Roman Empire. In those recounts, he is considered an ordinary statesman who maintained the status quo. Regardless of his place in history, the writings in Meditations remain an epic work. His writings reveal that the challenges of cultivating and living out a life of good character have not changed in the two thousand years since his death.

Here are just a few of the many words of wisdom you’ll find in Meditations:

Never esteem of anything as profitable, which shall ever contain thee either to break thy faith, or lose thy modesty, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to dissemble, to lust after anything, that requireth the secret of walls or veils. But be that preferreth before all things his rational part and spirit, and the sacred mysteries of virtue wich issueth from it, he shall never lament and exclaim, never sigh; he shall never want either solitude or company: and which is chiefest of all, he shall live without desire or fear.

Meditations 3:8

What is it that we must bestow our care and diligence upon? even upon this only: that our minds and wills be just; that our actions be charitable, that our speech be never deceitful, or that our understanding be not subject to error; that our inclination be always set to embrace whatsoever shall happen unto us, as necessary, as usual, as ordinary, as flowing from such a beginning, and such a fountain, from which both thyself and all things are.

Meditations 4:28

That which is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bee.

Meditations 6:49

Let not things future trouble thee. For if necessity so require that they come to pass, thou shalt (whensoever that is) be provided for them with the same reason, by which whatsoever is now present, is made both tolerable and acceptable unto thee.

Meditations 7:6

Then hath a man attained to the estate of perfection in his life and conversation, when he so spends every day, as if it were his last day: never hot and vehement in his affections, nor yet so cold and stupid as one that had no sense; and free from all manner of dissimulation.

Meditations 7:40

And as for fame. This life is short. Both he that praiseth, and he that is praised; he that remembers, and he that is remembered, will soon both be dust and ashes.

Meditations 8:19

Herein doth consist happiness of life, for a man to know thoroughly the true nature of everything; what is the matter, and what is the form of it: with all his heart and soul, ever to do that which is just, and to speak the truth.

Meditations 12:22

I found that there were many challenges to reading Meditations. First is finding a good translation. There are dozens of translations available on Amazon, which is similar to what you find when trying to purchase a copy of The Bible. The first question is which translation to buy? I settled on the Amazon Classic edition, which is a translation by Meric Casaubon, who lived from 1599-1671. His version of Meditations is the first English translation of Aurelius’ writings.

The second challenge with reading Meditations is that it is a collection of personal reflections. It is at times deeply personal, and at other times disjointed jumping from topic to topic. It’s obvious that Aurelius was not writing for an audience. He was keeping a journal to capture and to reflect on his thoughts. Much like keeping a diary, I doubt that Aurelius expected that people would revere his work long after his death. As such, and given the translation, my reading of Meditations was similar to reading the King James Version of The Bible. It was a slog. I’m sure there are other, more modern translations available that are easier to digest, which I will likely choose should (or when) I re-read Meditations in the future.

So am I happy I read Meditations? Absolutely. There is a certain satisfaction reading the source of material rather than reading someone else’s interpretation (yes, I know, a translation can be considered an interpretation too, but I would consider it less of one when compared to a paraphrasing of the work).

Would I recommend reading Meditations? Well, that depends. You need to have a deep, genuine interest in Stoicism to read Meditations. If you do, you will persevere through the highs and lows of Aurelius’ writing, and you will get a lot out of it. It’s worth the read. On the other hand, if your interest in Stoicism is a passing fancy or simple curiosity, I’d suggest passing on it. In that case, you’re better off just reading the excerpts curated by another, such as what you’ll find in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. You’ll get way more out of that work than trying to force feed your way through Meditations.

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