Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Translated by Gregory Hays)

I think this is the oldest book I’ve ever read. It dates back to, it’s thought, about 170 AD, although this translation by Gregory Hays was published in 2002 with the result that Marcus Aurelius sounds less like the philosophising Roman emperor that he was and more like a busy Dad just trying to add some private notes to his blog before bed. Which, is kind of what Meditations is – a mixture of personal thoughts and philosophical asides that he, we surmise, never imagined would be published in any form.

And isn’t it fantastic that we can access the inner-most, profoundest thoughts of the world’s most powerful man, circa 2000 years ago? OK, Meditations is repetative, but M.A. was writing for himself, not with an eye over his shoulder at what future readers might think. Consequently, what he writes might be as close to his honest, unfiltered thoughts as we could ever hope for. And what are his thoughts?

  • The world is organised in a rational way that we can begin to access through logic
  • Therefore, there’s little point in getting too upset when things are bad or excited when things are good because all things just happpen according to nature, the gods or logic, what does it matter?
  • There are no objectively good or bad things, rather just how we react to things, therefore if we control ourselves, our internal reaction to the external world, that’s all we can ever hope to do
  • Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.
  • Don’t waste your time supporting this side or that in chariot racing or this fighter or that fighter.
  • Hear unwelcome truths
  • Choose the camp-bed and the cloak over luxury.
  • Be forgiving of others’ faults, but strict on your own.
  • Stop allowing your mind to be enslaved by selfish impulses.
  • Concentrate every moment on what is in front of you, as if everything you did was the last thing you would do in your life.
  • The longest-lived and the shortest-lived lose the same thing, the present, since that’s all you have (what you do not have, you cannot lose)
  • But need to hurry because cannot be sure that your mind in the future will be sound
  • Elimiate all that is not essential so you’ll have more time for tranquility.
  • Don’t waste your time worrying what other people think of you, that will get in the way of foucussing on your own mind.
  • Don’t care what people will think of you after you are dead. Everyone who knew you will die soon too, and who can even remember the emporers that went before? What good does a reputation do you once you are dead? Instead, do the right thing for the common good now.
  • Nature is full of change, death and rebirth (like the seasons), therefore do not fear death.
  • We’re not here for comfort, we’re here to do our job, so stop moaning and get out of bed.
  • Do the right thing, the rest doesn’t matter.

Sure, he’s obsessed with death and how it comes to all of us, whether we’re Alexander the Great or his mule-driver, the same fate awaits us. M.A. couldn’t give a fig what you or anyone thinks of him because, what does it matter? You do the right thing, as best you know it, whether you believe in the gods or not, it doesn’t really matter because everything is connected…

And that’s where I have a problem with M.A. and his stoicism. To him it was self-evident there was some kind of divine scheme to the world, a fate to everything, the only mystery to human toil being that we didn’t know what Providence with a capital P or God or gods had in store for us… but everything, M.A. argued, happens for a reason.

Well, I can go along with everything else, but that last one is a stretch too far. And if much of life is in fact random or at least without much point, perhaps we should be less stoic and a little more willing to make the world around us better?

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No. 19 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2021.

Patrick Sherriff is an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.