Book Review: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius


I can think of very few books better suited to being read during a particularly contentious, vulgar and disheartening election season than the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

The twelve books, later collected as the Meditations after his death in AD 180, were written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius as a sort of diary of personal reflections. They take the form of a list of aphorisms expounding on the themes of public duty, self-awareness, detachment from created things, serenity in the face of lack of control, and the consequential peace of mind that results from acknowledging ones limitations. Since it was something of a diary, it does not follow the carefully constructed model of a typical work of philosophy. There is no argument or dialectic, it does not have a starting place or an end point, and there is no conclusion. Each aphorism stands largely on its own, although some seem to be grouped together, depending on the mood or train of that that Marcus Aurelius happened to be in. They are repetitive, with the same themes reappearing over and over again with sometimes only slight variations in wording, or a slightly different analogy used. This repetition is one of its greatest strengths, since it continuously re-presents the same thoughts to the reader’s mind, giving it multiple opportunities to assimilate it into its worldview. It is not meant to be instructive or didactic, per se, but rather to be transformative, to reshape the way the person looks at the world by continuous exposure to noble thought. It is best read as it was written, in little chunks as it seems good to the reader, each chunk taken and digested for a few hours or days, allowing the noble thought slowly to become a part of your own.

The philosophy is a distillation of stoicism, seen through a Roman eye with its characteristic emphasis on public good as the consummate end of human action. Marcus Aurelius emphasizes responsibility only for your own mind and decisions, and patience with those “fools” who do not understand the illusory nature of the world. It is an outlook of detached (ever so slightly smug) superiority and benevolence, seeking to educate the less enlightened, but enjoining forbearance and pity rather than contempt for those who cannot or will not travel the hard road of discipline, stoicism and philosophy.

It is supremely altruistic in its own humanist way, although at times he does come across as a bit insufferable, something of a know-it-all. His detachment tends to run to what would seem (to modern sensibilities) an extreme, in which you get the idea he would take the death of his father, wife or child with properly restrained grief and philosophic composure. I prefer C. S. Lewis’s critique of stoicism that it is bolder, more manly and more like the mind of God to dare to love and to grieve whole-heartedly like a man when the loved one is lost. Detachment from without the corresponding detachment for (provided by Deistic religions) may actually be an act of cowardice rather than of courage. After all, if you do not love in flesh and blood, but only in a disinterested and reservedly altruistic way, then you will not be hurt when your loved one is hurt. You have nothing invested. You are not your brother’s keeper. Aurelius himself does offer a few warnings against the extreme, but in the bulk of his writing’s emphasis on detachment these warnings are easy to miss.

That critique of extreme philosophical detachment aside, the book is an admirable antidote to the feeling-drenched, soft-headed polarism currently gripping our public discourse and stifling free speech under the fear of “offending.”

If you are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong; but if you cannot, remember that indulgence is given to you for this purpose. And the gods, too, are indulgent to such persons; and for some purpose they even help them to get health, wealth, reputation; so kind are they. And it is in your power also; or say, what hinders you?

Marcus Aurelius, Mediations Book IX, paragraph 12.

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