Why have some classical works endured the test of time? Can the wisdom of these texts console you in a time of crisis? And why have notable people for 1,800 years resorted to reading this book when facing adversity?
Meditations is a series of writings by Marcus Aurelius in a journal that details his philosophical approach to life. The book provides insights, wisdom and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others.
Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome during the second century. He was born into an established Roman family, but not the royal lineage. He distils his philosophy of the meditations, which use the understanding of perception, action and will to create a system for living.
At the peak of his presidency in 1998, when then United States president Bill Clinton was accused of sexual misconduct that threatened to ruin his tenure, he turned to Meditations. In the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq, former US secretary of defence James Mattis read the book while deployed as a marine.
Gregory Hays, an associate professor of classics at the University of Virginia, in the introduction to his 2002 translation of Meditations, writes “Perception requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: That we see things dispassionately for what they are.”
Perception is the first discipline. The second discipline, action, deals with our relationship with others. We need in the words of Aurelius “to live as nature requires.”
The third discipline — will — encompasses our attitude to things that are not within our control. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, and death, however unpleasant, can only harm us if we choose to see them that way. The same applies to what other people do.
Individually, the three disciplines contribute to a meaningful life. When combined they “constitute a comprehensive approach to life,” Hays writes.
The 2002 translation was written to be more accessible than earlier stodgier translations, with emphasis on the fact that Meditations was compiled for Aurelius’s own use, not with any expectation of other readers, keeping it true to the original text.
A major theme of the book is the sense of mortality that pervades the work. Death is not to be feared, Aurelius continually reminds himself. “Soon you will be dead,” he tells himself on a number of occasions, “and none of it will matter.”
It is a natural process, part of the continual change that forms the world.
Other recurring themes surface as well. A number of entries discuss methods of dealing with pain or bodily weaknesses.
“When you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m not going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” Aurelius ponders.
It would seem, as Hays writes in his introduction, that Aurelius would be surprised by the title of work ascribed to him.
“The long established English title Meditations is not only not original, but positively misleading, lending a spurious air of resonance and authority quite alien to the haphazard set of notes that constitute the book,” he writes, “In the lost Greek manuscript used for the first printed edition — itself many generations removed from Marcus’s original- the work was entitled ‘To Himself’ (Eis heauton).”
Meditations is not a diary, at least not in the conventional sense. The entries contain little related to Aurelius’s day to day life — few names, no dates and with two exceptions, no places. It also lacks the sense of audience — the reader over one’s shoulder that tends to characterise even the most secretive diaries.
Perhaps the best description of the entries is that suggested by French scholar Pierre Hadot. They are “spiritual exercises” composed to provide a momentary stay against the stress and confusion of everyday life — a self-help book in the most literal sense.
Today, Meditations has become a landmark of Stoic philosophy that has guided both powerful and common people for thousands of years. Reading it, I want to be a better person. The author’s humility, discipline, work ethic, kindness, rationality and character shine through. He shows his vulnerability as he counsels himself through darkness.
Aurelius reminds himself over and over to detach his emotions from the difficulties of the world, to maintain his composure during tough times, and to treat all fates as equal — prosperity and poverty, success and failure, life and death.
Meditations reminded me that even one of the most powerful emperors of all time was as vulnerable as I am, and had the same doubts and fears that I have. Anyone can relate to the profound collection of aphorisms and insights in the book.
The wisdom rings as true now as when it was written. It is unpretentious and unapologetic in its delivery, compared with other inspirational books that pander to the reader.