I went almost six months before returning to the great works of Greece and Rome this time, but there is a reason that these works have endured across millennia. Born in the early second century CE, he was emperor of Rome for less than twenty years and is sometimes referred to as the last emperor of the Pax Romana. He was also an adherent of stoic philosophy, which I will be discussing at length in a future post, because this is not a review of stoic philosophy, but most people do now remember Marcus Aurelius for his Meditations on stoicism.
One of the most interesting parts about reading these ancient pieces of literature is when they reference even older pieces of writing that I have also read. It is a kind of unique connection across time to think that Marcus Aurelius and I both read Plato’s Dialogues, for instance. Plato’s writings would already have been ancient to Aurelius, being written almost six hundred years before he lived, which goes a long way towards explaining how we can today know what these texts say – people made deliberate efforts to preserve them throughout the intervening centuries.
When I was younger, before I started keeping a reading list, I was a big re-reader, mostly because I always had trouble finding the next book that I wanted to read. That changed when I began keeping a reading list that is now two hundred books long and never seems to get any shorter, so that these days I re-read less than I did simply because I know there is still so much that I haven’t yet read. If I’m going to re-read something, then, it has to either be extremely enjoyable as a story, or something that I will learn something new from every time I read it. Meditations falls firmly in the latter category, for despite taking my time going through it on my first read, this is not the sort of book that you fully internalize on the first read-through.
The text is divided into twelve “books” of about thirty-five “meditations” each. They range in clarity from straightforward exhortations towards honesty, to opaque remonstrances about the will of the Gods. These are not commandments, nor diktats, nor rules for living a stoic life; they present rather as Aurelius’ thoughts as he goes through life and seeks to live stoicism (of which he was not the originator: that title is generally attributed to Zeno, who lived in the 3rd century BCE and was a different Zeno than the one who gave us ‘Zeno’s Paradoxes‘).
There is a certain fatalism about many of Aurelius’ meditations, such that one considers he may have suffered from some amount of depression; in fact, stoicism and especially his Meditations are among the main bases for modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is one of the leading non-medical treatments for depression today. He is exceedingly aware of the proximity of death and how brief our time alive is compared to the eternity of non-life, but his meditations, for all their gloom, focus on how to make the best use of that time, with emphasis on humility, equanimity, introspection, awareness, and credibility.
Unlike many of the ancient works I’ve read, like Herodotus’ Histories, Aurelius did not write Meditations for public consumption. They are, in a sense, his private journal – one source describes journaling as the stoic equivalent of prayer – which explains why sections of the book read as disjointed and vague. Some of the entries are quite challenging to parse, and there are references to contemporaneous happenings for which we no longer have context, but the book can still be thought of as a unique insight into the mind of someone who was, at the time, perhaps the most powerful person in the world.
I did not read Meditations as a historian, but as a philosopher. Stoicism is a compelling philosophy more for what it does not claim than what it does, but we will discuss that at greater length in another post. Even if you’re not interested in going full-stoic, the lessons Aurelius wrote for himself can help all of us to live more thoughtfully. Whether you’re an aspiring Roman emperor, or a commoner in the 21st century, I encourage you to read Meditations soon.