Meditations (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Meditations is Marcus Aurelius' private book of reflections, written over a series of years in far-flung places as he led the Romans in military campaigns, quashed revolts, and dealt with the other tribulations of governing the Empire. It is best described as a spiritual journal, containing a record of Marcus' philosophical exercises. The book is interesting as an example of Stoic thought and is valuable for historical reasons as a document of the inner life of a remarkable Roman emperor. It remains compelling, ...
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Meditations (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Meditations is Marcus Aurelius' private book of reflections, written over a series of years in far-flung places as he led the Romans in military campaigns, quashed revolts, and dealt with the other tribulations of governing the Empire. It is best described as a spiritual journal, containing a record of Marcus' philosophical exercises. The book is interesting as an example of Stoic thought and is valuable for historical reasons as a document of the inner life of a remarkable Roman emperor. It remains compelling, however, because it bears witness to a profound journey of the human spirit and speaks to us across the millennia about perennial human problems.
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Meet the Author


Marcus Aurelius - who contemporary readers might recognize from Gladiator, the 2000 Hollywood film starring Richard Harris as Marcus - became Emperor in 161 C.E. at the age of forty. While his philosophical training encouraged toleration and even compassion, his duties as Emperor often required a harsher approach. Marcus thus embodies the tragic paradox of the philosopher-king who must enforce the law and administer justice, while looking beyond politics to the cosmic vantage point from which the tribulations of politics come to seem trivial.
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Introduction

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Roman Emperor, was inspired by the Greek ideal of philosophy as a way of life. The Meditations (composed ca. 170-180 C.E.) is Marcus' private book of reflections, written over a series of years in far flung places as Marcus led the Romans in military campaigns, quashed revolts, and dealt with the other tribulations of governing the Empire. It is best described as a spiritual journal, containing a record of Marcus' philosophical exercises. While the book is valuable for historical reasons as a document of the inner life of a remarkable Roman emperor, it is the spiritual force of the book that is truly extraordinary. Marcus speaks to us across the millennia about perennial human problems. The book is interesting as an example of Stoic thought, but it remains compelling because it bears witness to a profound journey of the human spirit.

Marcus became Emperor in 161 C.E. at the age of 40. Contemporary readers might recognize Marcus from the Hollywood film, Gladiator (2000), as the virtuous warrior-emperor (played by Richard Harris) who was succeeded by his egoistic and somewhat perverse son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Marcus' reign was generally benevolent, although he did continue to persecute the Christian sect. The irony of the fact that "the gentlest and most amiable of philosophers and rulers" also persecuted the Christians was not lost on modern authors such as John Stuart Mill, who called this "one of the most tragical facts in all of history." While his philosophical training led in the direction of toleration and even compassion, his duties as Emperor often led in an opposite direction. Marcus thus embodies the tragic paradox of the philosopher-king who must enforce the law and administer justice, while looking beyond politics to the cosmic vantage point from which the tribulations of politics come to seem trivial.

Marcus' endeavor in the Meditations can be understood in light of the problem of linking philosophical theory and moral practice. Philosophy aims to see things as they actually are. This in turn is supposed to have profound practical implications. The practice of "meditation," as in the English title of the book, is an effort to see things correctly in order to become better. The Greek verb meletao and the Latin meditari mean to practice, exercise, rehearse, care for, and attend to. Marcus attends to truth, rehearses living well, and cares for his own soul. Unlike Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy , Marcus' book is not an extended argument or treatise. Rather, it is a book of admonitions and exhortations. Marcus wrote the book in Greek. Its Greek title, ta eis heauton (in Latin, ad se ipsum ) literally means "to himself." The book consists of reminders to himself designed to help him remember the best way to live.

The didactic purpose of the book helps explains the imperative form of many of the aphorisms in the Meditations . Such commands are often given from parent to child, from teacher to pupil, from leader to follower. What is interesting about the Meditations is that these commands are, as it were, given by Marcus to himself. This indicates a dualism, inherited from Plato, in Marcus' moral psychology. The "God within" as Marcus describes it, is supposed to be "the guardian of the real man" (Meditations , 3.5). The practice of meditation helps to keep the soul properly ordered, with the reasonable part ruling over the passions.

Marcus' book is part of a genre of inspirational writings that was common in Greece and Rome. Other ancient Greek authors assembled books of meditations, sayings, or apothegmata , intended as spiritual guides. In the generation before Marcus, Arrian compiled the sayings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus's into the Discourses, a work to which Marcus himself refers in the first book of the Meditations . After Marcus, the genre was perhaps most famously mastered by Augustine, whose Confessions provide an example of Christian self-examination and meditation. In contemporary literature the practice of meditational writing has flourished in "inspirational" writing or in "self-help" guides.

Inspirational writing needs to be eloquent in order to achieve its didactic purpose: the imagery and precepts must be clear and memorable. Marcus' skill in the rhetoric of inspiration is on display throughout the Meditations . The ideal to which Marcus aspires is quite simple and can be stated in one sentence: "if it is not right, don't do it: if it is not true, don't say it (Meditations , 12.17). The problem with this simple advice is that it is extraordinarily difficult to follow. Because our passions and ignorance distract us from this truth, we need to be constantly reminded to do what is right and to say what is true. Like all good things, the life of virtue requires constant practice. "Practice even the things which you despair of achieving" (Meditations , 12.6). Writing, reading, memorizing, rehearsing, and meditating are all forms of practice aimed at seeing things correctly.

Marcus' style in the Meditations is a reflection of his philosophical worldview. His modest, even parsimonious style is aimed always at a clear expression of the truth. "Speak both in the senate and to every man of whatever rank with propriety, without affectation. Use words that ring true" (Meditations , 8.30). From Marcus' perspective, the aphoristic and imperative form is essential to the pursuit of truth, just as it would be for later writers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Moreover, the reserved and controlled form of the Meditations , the generally pensive-some might say, brooding-tone of the work, serves as a reminder of the essence of Marcus' moral and spiritual ideal. It is quiet, reflective, disciplined, and moderate, just as the man of virtue is supposed to be.

The unquestioned philosophical influence on Marcus is Stoicism, although Marcus draws freely from a variety of philosophical schools. Common to these schools is the image of Socrates as the paradigm philosopher, who taught that the practice of philosophy is the solution to all of life's ills. We learn to bear the accidents of life-illness and health, loss and gain, defeat and victory-by seeing them philosophically for what they really are: mere accidents whose meaning is contained in the totality of the universe. Marcus' Stoicism is a Roman development of the Greek Stoic tradition, which began with Zeno of Citium. The late Roman form of Stoicism, whose other major representatives include Seneca, Epictetus, and to a lesser extent Cicero, emphasized practical wisdom as the result of cosmology, metaphysics, and logic. The basic ideas of Stoicism include the following. The universe is an organic whole in which all individuals have a part to play. Justice, duty, and virtue are determined by the part that we are to play in the cosmic totality. The essence of being human is to be rational and social. Thus our duty is to cultivate reason in pursuit of justice. In the modern era, these ideas would influence Spinoza's metaphysics, Kant's morality, and liberal understandings of natural law. Stoicism continues to be influential and can be seen in the work of contemporary thinkers such as Lawrence Becker and Martha Nussbaum.

A common caricature of the Stoic sage sees him as detached and uncaring. Nietzsche provides one example: "The Stoic trains himself to swallow stones and worms, slivers of glass and scorpions without nausea: he wants his stomach to become ultimately indifferent to whatever the accidents of existence might pour into it." While there is some truth to this portrait, it must be put in its proper perspective. Stoics hold that we should be indifferent about those things over which we have no control but we should be passionate where passion is required. Marcus is passionate about justice and philosophy because these are proper objects of human passion. Some have argued that Stoicism is a worldview that is frequently adopted during times of instability and war. But the genuine Stoic would argue that in the long run-as philosophers since Heraclitus have known-everything is unstable and impermanent. Stoicism well serves the needs of warriors and others whose lives are lived under the threat of pain, hardship, and death. But it is also suitable for anyone who is aware of finitude, death, and the inevitability of decay.

Marcus is concerned about overcoming the dispiriting effects of pain and the fear of death. The final aphorism of the book focuses on life as a play directed by a higher power. The actor's duty is to play his part well and not complain when his time on the stage is over. Although Marcus does have a concept of Providence, his view is not the Christian one that focuses on personal immortality and salvation. Marcus' lack of concern for personal immortality is connected to the thesis of Heraclitus, that all is change, even the self. "All is ephemeral, both what remembers and what is remembered" (Meditations , 4.35). Even the inner citadel of the soul is subject to decay and dissolution. Recognition of this should give us the impetus to pursue wisdom and virtue now, while our faculties are functioning well. Thus Marcus looks upon life as an opportunity, which must not be wasted, while viewing death as a necessary part of life, which must be accepted as part of nature. But Marcus's idea of carpe diem does not result in an Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. Rather, he emphasizes that now is the moment to become virtuous, in spite of the distractions of life, our tendency to procrastinate, and our lack of willpower.

Marcus' Stoicism is probably most heavily influenced by Epictetus. The pairing of Epictetus and Marcus is an interesting one: Marcus was Emperor while Epictetus was a freed slave. Although Epictetus, as slave, provides support for Nietzsche's thesis that Stoicism is a "slave-morality," Marcus, as Emperor, contradicts this point of view. At issue in both Epictetus and Marcus is the question of freedom. Orlando Patterson has argued, "A genuine philosophy of freedom-or, to be more precise, the ontology of freedom-began with these two men." Both point to the problem of the relation between outer freedom and inner freedom. Outer freedom is freedom from constraint, what Isaiah Berlin has called "negative freedom." The difficulty of outer freedom is that it is one of those vicissitudes toward which we should learn to be indifferent because ultimately we do not have control over it. For the Stoic, what truly matters is inner freedom, for we ultimately only have control over our own minds. Isaiah Berlin criticized this as a "retreat to the inner citadel," a retreat that would be unsatisfying, for most of us who are committed to the liberal ideal of negative freedom. The problem is that the retreat to the inner citadel leaves us isolated and alone in our inner sanctum, without succor, reconciled only with the sanctity and freedom of our own minds. It should be noted, in response to this, that Marcus does celebrate social relationships, friendship, and the value of family life. However, Marcus emphasizes that social life, for all its benefits, is something that is beyond our control. We can enjoy our friends and family but we must realize that eventually they too will die.

It has been noted that the general tone of the Meditations is one of melancholy. Various causes for this have been noted, including Stoicism's emphasis on finitude and death. The issue of freedom could be another cause: we want to be free but find that the freedom of the inner citadel is lonely and unsatisfying. Some have said that Marcus's tone results from his lack of an adequate theology-by which is usually meant the Christian theology-in which to ground his spiritual longings. Marcus has thus been interpreted as a proto-Christian whose version of Stoicism leads dialectically to Christianity. Although Marcus seems to believe that benevolent gods do exist, his theology does not include an account of a personal savior or of personal immortality. Others have argued that Marcus suffered from an opium addiction and that this helps explain his odd comments about time and the seemingly altered states of consciousness, which he describes in explaining the cosmic worldview. It is probably true that Marcus used opium as a preventative for potential poisons (a standard practice for Roman Emperors) but it is unlikely that he was an addict in the modern sense. Perhaps the most plausible interpretation of Marcus' melancholy is linked to the problem of uniting theory and practice: Marcus seems to realize that no one person-even an Emperor-could make a lasting change upon the social world.

Marcus made no original contributions to the development of Stoicism or philosophy. But Marcus' interest was not in abstract speculation. Rather, his effort was to turn theory into practice. This has led some historians of philosophy, such as Hegel, to pass over Marcus's Meditations as little more than moralistic sermonizing. But this judgment is too severe in its assumption that speculative philosophy is the essence of philosophy. Marcus represents a rather different approach to philosophy, one that is connected to the spirit of Socrates, who himself did not engage in the kind of speculative philosophy that Hegel has in mind. The virtue of Marcus' approach is that he shows us the way that philosophy can be brought to bear on the problem of living a virtuous life.

Perhaps Hegel is right that the Meditations are moralistic sermonizing. However, sermonizing is valuable for the life of the spirit. And great sermonizers such as Jesus, Marcus, and Emerson remind us that the point of life is to live well, not to dwell on abstract speculation or pedantic exercises in scholastic debate. For Marcus each person's virtue is up to him. Although we can learn much from the great minds of our tradition, at a certain point you must "put away your books, be distracted no longer" (Meditations , 2.2). Marcus' Meditations were written for himself. They are the private spiritual exercises of a great man. If we take Marcus' message seriously, after reading the book we must put it down and actively engage ourselves in the task of living well.

Andy Fiala is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of The Philosopher's Voice and articles on topics in nineteenth-century philosophy, ethics, and political philosophy.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 28, 2010

    Ancient class of thought

    This is a good book to read and understand the position and thought of ancient philosopher, specially, The emperor and head of the state.
    It is good start to become familiar with one of the oldest class of thinking "Stoicism"
    But is much better to read the life of emperor Marcus Aurelius first to know him and his position at the time.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2008

    A reviewer

    The Roman Emperor and General of the Army muses at night on practical philosophy. If you saw the movie GLADIATOR he is Russel Crowe's adopted father who is murdered by his biological son at the opening of the story.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Snow

    Doesn't have an apprentice.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 12, 2013

    Calladeema

    She wants to start training

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2013

    Stastical

    A manor of soulus

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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