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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated & Explained

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated & Explained

by Marcus Aurelius

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The timeless wisdom of an ancient Stoic can become a companion for your own spiritual journey.

Stoicism is often portrayed as a cheerless, stiff-upper-lip philosophy of suffering and doom. Yet as experienced through the thoughtful and penetrating writings of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE), the Stoic approach to life is surprisingly rich,


The timeless wisdom of an ancient Stoic can become a companion for your own spiritual journey.

Stoicism is often portrayed as a cheerless, stiff-upper-lip philosophy of suffering and doom. Yet as experienced through the thoughtful and penetrating writings of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE), the Stoic approach to life is surprisingly rich, nuanced, clear-eyed and friendly.

With facing-page commentary that explains the texts for you, Russell McNeil, PhD, guides you through key passages from Aurelius's Meditations, comprised of the emperor’s collected personal journal entries, to uncover the startlingly modern relevance his words have today. From devotion to family and duty to country, to a near-prophetic view of the natural world that aligns with modern physics, Aurelius’s words speak as potently today as they did two millennia ago.

Now you can discover the tenderness, intelligence and honesty of Aurelius’s writings with no previous background in philosophy or the classics. This SkyLight Illuminations edition offers insightful and engaging commentary that explains the historical background of Stoicism, as well as the ways this ancient philosophical system can offer psychological and spiritual insight into your contemporary life. You will be encouraged to explore and challenge Aurelius’s ideas of what makes a fulfilling life—and in so doing you may discover new ways of perceiving happiness.

Editorial Reviews

South China Morning Post - Wen Jiabao ASIA SPECIFIC David Wilson
Forget Sun Tzu, author of the immensely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy, The Art of War. Move over Confucius, the scholar-official who remains the most prominent and respected philosopher in Chinese history.

The sage in the spotlight of mainland society now is an outsider whose name may not necessarily be familiar despite cinematic exposure. Featured in the 2000 Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius (AD121–180) was the last of the "Five Good Roman Emperors" and a leading voice in stoic philosophy, which advocated accepting misfortune with virtus—toughness or character.

Aurelius was a reluctant warrior and composed his classic work, Meditations, during campaigns lasting a decade from AD170. It contains a wealth of observations that reflect the stoic perspective and has one prominent admirer: Wen Jiabao. The Premier revealed last year that he had read the masterpiece almost 100 times, spawning a Marcus Aurelius craze that swept the Middle Kingdom and helped propel Meditations to the fifth place in—the admittedly government-backed—China Book International's best-seller list.

Greg Sung, founder of the Hong Kong-based booklovers' network aNobii.com, observes that Wen may exert more cultural influence than a Hollywood "mega-blockbuster": the portrayal of Marcus Aurelius by Richard Harris in Gladiator had less effect on book sales than the Premier's disclosure, Sung claims.

Wen's fascination with the dour, long-dead Roman may stem from a sense of fellowship, according to Russell McNeil, the author of Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated & Explained. History remembers Aurelius as the proverbial "philosopher king". Likewise, Wen, a geologist by training, has a reputation for being a deft administrator who takes a consensual, collegiate tack.

McNeil describes stoicism as "thoroughly rationalistic", anchored in arguments based on physics and "natural law", which means it squares with communist doctrine, which recognises no god. Better yet, stoicism has a "social", even socialist, slant. It decrees that morality should be based on doing what is right for the community or the state.

"Personal satisfaction or happiness in stoicism does not flow from the gratification of personal desires or the avoidance of hard work or pain," McNeil says.

When our actions stem from self-interest, we transgress. When we discriminate against others, we also err because, again, just like socialism, stoicism tells us we are all part of the proletariat and should treat everyone equally. The king is no better or worse than a pauper, Aurelius teaches, conjuring images of Wen in his famed plain green jacket, looking like a friendly next-door neighbour.

Despite being written on the march, Meditations was "multiethnic and multinational", according to McNeil, who says the true stoic rises above nationalism and sees the world as a single political entity.

Sung, for his part, credits fashion for the book's success on the mainland. He says the attention may have been amplified by a general renewed interest in the work of old masters such as the cryptic poet philosopher Master Zhuang, or Zhuangzi, who famously dreamed about being a butterfly. Hugely popular television lecture programmes on philosophy, hosted by university professors, are stoking the trend, Sung says.

Meditations has, moreover, won the endorsement of Bill Clinton. The former US president features it in his list of his 21 favourite books of all time, among works by the likes of George Orwell and Maya Angelou.

Bonnie Girard, president of business consultancy China Channel, is another fan. Like McNeil, Girard attributes the book's popularity partly to the fact that Aurelius ranks as a thinker but not a preacher. "In many ways," Girard says, "he is the antithesis of a religious or spiritual leader, so in modern Chinese political terms he is safe."

Girard says that Wen, the unflappable "super-mandarin", as characterised by Time magazine, believes people will benefit from absorbing Aurelius' work now especially, because the mainland is in the throes of a spiritual awakening.

Who better to direct the populace than a non-religious philosopher with no implied or actual affiliation to any of the world's great religions, says Girard. She paints Aurelius as a secular "lightning rod" with the power to help fulfil human hunger for answers to big questions.

With the economic boom boosting expectations and widening the wealth gap, Aurelius' robust attitude is an inspiration, Girard adds. "The Chinese respect strength, I believe, more than almost any other human characteristic."

The imperial superman immortalised by a legion of bronze and marble statues showed mercy to his vanquished enemies, battled corruption and slavery and even, like an early human rights agitator, decreed that gladiators fight with blunted weapons. When his empire was short on funds, instead of raising taxes he sold his plentiful belongings.

At home, Aurelius was forced to contend with everything from famine and earthquakes (which have long afflicted China too) to fires and plague. Abroad, he faced threats posed by Germanic tribes to the north and Parthians to the east. In the light of all the aggravation, few other historical figures seem so "battle-tested".

In case anyone doubts his gravitas, his publishers accord Aurelius the kind of reverence allotted the likes of Shakespeare and Socrates as top-tier literary greats. Penguin parades his book in its Great Ideas series devoted to writers who "shook civilisation". Watkins hails it as an inspiration to the best of humanity for almost two millennia. Tarcher calls Aurelius' voice "universal" and "equally recognisable to students of Christ, the Buddha, the Vedas, the Talmud and to anyone who sincerely searches for a way of meaning in contemporary life".

Aurelius' cachet transcends boundaries of ideology and geography.

"How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes," runs a characteristically terse Aurelius maxim.

Whatever their outlook, few readers will be disappointed by his writing given its considerable clarity and punch.

The Vancouver Sun - Douglas Todd

In the time of a controversial five-year-long war in Iraq, we can gain badly needed wisdom from two of history's greatest warriors.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Chinese general Sun Tzu can teach us about virtue, peace and philosophy when it seems many want us on a perpetual war footing.

These two military leaders, studied for millennia by both the powerful and the subversive, considered war the worst thing humans could engage in—the most cruel, wasteful and mindless.

But, when they had to, they did war well. They may have seen war as a last resort, but when they judged it necessary to keep the peace or protect the state, they engaged in it with devastating efficiency.

Skylight Illuminations, a creative U.S. spiritual book publisher, is bringing the values of these famous Roman and Chinese warriors to a world that needs to more deeply explore the ethics of conflict.

The publisher teamed up with former Malaspina University-College scholar Russell McNeil to produce The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained. The revealing book highlights how the Roman emperor embraced Stoic philosophy (a worldview, by the way, highly valued by Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.)

The related book, The Art of War—Spirituality for Conflict: Annotated and Explained, has been put together by U.S. writer Thomas Huynh. The author adapts the advice Sun Tzu offered 2,500 years ago to help today's individuals and leaders resolve conflicts.

Even though Skylight Illuminations didn't promote the books as a package, there are surprising parallels—particularly the leaders' emphasis on virtues like courage, self-control, rationality and justice. Although their complex philosophies are not necessarily perfect for us today, it's intriguing these respected figures both believed war was a disgrace, that it should never be entered into without a concern for the common good.

In his commentary, McNeil, who lives on Vancouver Island, builds on Marcus Aurelius' meditations to question the 21st-century "war on terrorism," suggesting if contemporary rulers used "divine" reason the way the wise emperor did they would recognize injustice often breeds such dangerous rage.

For his part, Sun Tzu taught that leaders should never go to war out of greed or revenge, but (like Christians who believe in "just-war theory") should make every diplomatic and strategic effort to avoid armed battle.

Huynh, a Vietnamese refugee, turns Sun Tzu's masterwork on winning into advice on advancing global and personal peace.

The Art of War has been studied by everyone from Latin American revolutionary Che Guevera to retired U.S. general Colin Powell (who speaks in Vancouver June 12.) Huynh maintains Sun Tzu's pragmatic philosophy can prevent conflicts, quickly resolve them if they do arise, promote benevolence in adversarial situations, convert potential enemies into friends and help individuals control their emotions. The latter leads to one of the most striking philosophical parallels between the two warriors.

The Roman emperor, who died in AD 180, and the Chinese general each emphasized "detaching" from one's emotions.

The Art of War, writes Huynh, teaches: "Being ruled by your emotions, exaggerating your strengths, denying your weaknesses and wishful thinking can only lead to catastrophe."

The Roman ruler, McNeil says, also taught that "personal attachments to people or things have little to do with what it means to be human." The Stoics, like Socrates, did not see pain and tragedy as limiting humans' ability to be content.

Even though the emperor's Stoicism veers close to emotional coldness, to limiting empathy for loved ones, McNeil defends it. He particularly values the way Aurelius put ultimate value on reason, or "divine intelligence," over emotion. McNeil compares Stoicism to the "cognitive behavioral therapy" founded by psychologist Albert Ellis.

Like Ellis, the Roman emperor stressed the importance of overriding emotions to make rational choices. Marcus Aurelius criticized those who waited passively for a supernatural God to take care of things.

Even though it's clear Stoicism and Sun Tzu's Art of War can suit tough-minded, ethical generals (and many modern-day athletes), I suspect these two philosophers may be a touch too indifferent to emotions and loving relationships.

I also have trouble with their placing ultimate importance on the state, which, combined with their stress on bravery and self-denial, could lead to unnecessary martyrdom. But these are concerns to study more thoroughly, because these warriors' philosophies are nothing if not subtle.

All in all, it is impressive that—when many leaders talk about peace but frequently revert to expensive and destructive military "solutions"—these ancient generals can still teach us how to resolve the root causes of all kinds of conflict.

From the Publisher

"A stirring reinterpretation of Aurelius's Stoicism for our time. In Russell McNeil, Marcus Aurelius has at last met the colleague he has sorely needed for almost two millennia: a sensitive and systematic editor, and a loyal and lucid commentator."
John Black, professor of philosophy and liberal studies, Malaspina University-College

"Marcus Aurelius was one of humanity's great inquirers…. Russell McNeil’s revised and annotated version of George Long’s classic translation of Meditations reintroduces us to the genius of Marcus Aurelius at a time when wisdom is rare and free inquiry rarer still."
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

“I came to this book expecting to read something that was vaguely good for me and as dull as paint; instead I found Aurelius—at once immensely likeable and helpful—and Dr. McNeil's fine introduction to the author and comments on his Meditations. That McNeil uses prose as lucid as Aurelius recommends only added to my pleasure in reading.”
Rev. Bert Ramsey, United Church of Canada minister

Product Details

Turner Publishing Company
Publication date:
SkyLight Illuminations Series
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

Meet the Author

George Long (1800–1879) was a British classical scholar. He held professorships in Greek and Latin at the University of London and the University of Virginia. His translation of Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius was published in 1862 and is considered the gold standard of Aurelius translations.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is a popular lecturer on the classics. He has been a columnist and commentator in newspaper, radio and television, and is founder and Web editor of Malaspina Great Books series, one of the largest Web resources for classic literature. He is a former professor at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia.

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