Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kobra Kid Reviews: Meditations

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is not your typical book on philosophy. It does not contain carefully constructed arguments establishing or supporting a particular school of thought, as you might expect, but rather the reflections of a man who was ruler of arguably the greatest empire in antiquity. These are thoughts on the qualities and virtues Marcus held in esteem, on his personal beliefs and his views on the world around him, sometimes religious, sometimes social, and his exhortations to himself to become a better person.

"Whatever anyone does or says, I must be a good man. It is as if an emerald, or gold or purple, were always saying: 'Whatever anyone does or says, I must be an emerald and keep my own colour'."

The original title of the Meditations was, in Greek*, something like: To Himself. Because, in actuality, these writings by Marcus Aurelius were never intended by him for public consumption, but were instead the ponderings and reminders and admonitions from Marcus to Marcus. A rather sophisticated diary, more or less. Therefore, there is a lot of repetition to be found here. Marcus knew his own shortcomings and was continually exhorting himself against anger, to be kind to others, to be content with the life Fate had given him to, and so on. But in between these constant reminders, and the rather tedious recitation of Marcus's** personal beliefs about life, death, and Providence, are a few gems worth digging to find.

"All things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion."

Some of these reflections and philosophical tidbits resonated very strongly with me, as I'm sure they will with others, or at least spark a few deep thoughts and introspection. But I think perhaps the Meditations will be more compatible on the whole with people who share Marcus's particular brand of spirituality--not necessarily the paganism, of course, since monotheism is all the rage these days, but the general shape of his belief structure that has survived the ages. Personally, as an atheist, there was much in this book I simply could not get behind. For example, Marcus believed very strongly in Providence; the gods will provide. He believed they take an active interest in our lives, and that they have spun out the threads of our Fate and determined how they weave into the larger Whole. Those are nice thoughts, I suppose, but not ones I happen to share.

Nor do I share the belief that, because the gods have preordained the course of our lives, we should therefore be content with our lot, regardless, and not complain or wish it were otherwise. That particular philosophy is all well and good, of course, if you're at the top of the hierarchy, but I assure you that the view from below is not so good. When you're at the bottom, it's difficult to accept the men were born for each other mentality, to simply be happy with your shitty life, and not wish it were better or want to change it. Which is exactly why philosophies of this sort were invented in the first place, naturally; because if it's personally beneficial to you to perpetuate a desperately unequal class system, you don't want the lowly wretches beneath you thinking they could ever be anything besides proletarian drudges.

But perhaps I should stop there before this deteriorates into a disgruntled sociopolitical diatribe that has little to do with philosophy. My point is: I guess I'm just not much of a Stoic. I'm more of an Epicurus than an Epictetus, myself, and I think people who find their views aligned more with the latter will enjoy the Meditations more than I did.

That said, however, regardless of your personal beliefs, I feel this book is definitely worth a read for the historical context alone. I mean, how often do we really get insight into the private thoughts of a Roman emperor? (I mean, the really private thoughts, since he never meant anyone else to read these.) And not even one of the batshit Caesars, either, but one of the best loved, who earned the title of "philosopher king" in his lifetime. Surely his Meditations are worth a few hours of your time? If you're a fast reader, and if you skip or skim the notes, you can probably finish this in an afternoon, and perhaps you'll walk away with some food for thought.

*Yes, he wrote his meditations in Greek; I am not confusing my apples with my Romans.

**Marcus's. Ess-apostrophe-ess. Can we just discuss for a moment how concerned I am with the prevalence of Marcus' in the notes of my edition? I'm under the impression that Martin Hammond is from England, though I may be wrong, and maybe grammar is different in the UK, I don't know. But where I come from, since we are only discussing one Marcus, the possessive should be Marcus's. Only if there were two or more Marcuses would the possessive be Marcus'. Honestly. These academics need to learn how to use Google. Type "plural possessive" into search bar, get 1.5 million results in 0.11 seconds. NOT THAT DIFFICULT. (technologicallychallengedduck.png)

Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]

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