Of all the Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) comes closest to Plato’s impossible ideal of a philosopher-king. A reflective, bookish man and a lifelong student of philosophy, Aurelius was also an effective administrator and a determined and able military commander. This last aspect of his character was to prove useful, since much of his 19-year reign was spent fighting Germanic invaders along the Danube.
It was during these campaigns that Aurelius wrote his Meditations. While Julius Caesar had written his Gallic Wars as a public celebration of his military prowess, Aurelius had no audience in mind but himself, and his aim was his own moral guidance and self-improvement. Meditations is not the work of a professional philosopher and presents no organized system of thought. At first glance it seems little more than a random collection of stoic maxims and commonplace remarks, and the casual reader is likely to wonder why such a patently ordinary book should have been so highly thought of and so frequently imitated for nearly two millennia.
But first impressions can frequently be deceptive. Meditations is a more complex and powerful book than it first seems, and for a variety of reasons. First, since Aurelius wrote it for his own private use, there is no one to impress. As a result, no other surviving literary work of antiquity is as free of ostentation and rhetoric. Secondly, while it gives us no philosophical system, Meditations deals directly with the questions that assail anyone who has wondered about the purpose of life. In that practical and important sense, Meditations is a true philosophical work, deeply personal in intent yet universal in application.
For all its universality, Meditations will not appeal in equal measure to everyone. What was once the concern of practical philosophy has now largely been transmuted into the business of self-help manuals, with their promise of personal happiness, social success, and financial well-being. Aurelius was deeply influenced by the stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, who preferred virtue above pleasure and tranquility above happiness. Epictetus reflected the intellectual fashion of his time. To many today, his emphasis on self-denial would seem merely quaint.
Nevertheless, Meditations still retains its ability to move and persuade. This is in large part because it is not a parroting of Epictetus or any other philosopher. Aurelius took the precepts of the thinkers he admired and tested them against the evidence of his life. What stood that test he reshaped in his own words; what did not he let go. That is a considerable achievement. If each one of us did likewise with the ideas we admire, the results might not last two millennia, but they would prove useful.
Meditations has never been out of print and is available in many versions, priced from the affordable to the outrageous. But for value nothing beats the Dover Thrift Edition, which offers you a living classic for the price of a cup of coffee.
By JOHN SISCOE, Contributing Writer
John Siscoe owns and operates Globe Books in Pioneer Square.
Book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Dover Publications, 99 pages, $2.00
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