Book review: Meditations, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus13 January 2022
A short review of the personal journal of a Roman Emperor with a strongly Stoic personal philosophy.
Having recently decided to do some more (non-fictional) reading, I started by picking up some literature already available to me, starting with Meditations. My copy was translated and annotated by Martin Hammond, and published by Penguin Classics.1
The Meditations are the surviving writings of Marcus Aurelius, created later in his life and not intended to be published. Nevertheless, it serves as an interesting glimpse into the mind of a particularly interesting and (for his time) important character. Most entries ("chapters") serve as reminders to himself for how he should think or behave, or justify his beliefs with rhetorical arguments.
Hammond's notes provide some helpful context, and regularly spares you from jumping to your own research when Marcus brings up things you're unfamiliar with - though some have been lost to history. He also links related chapters together, which is handy for jumping through Marcus' repeated explorations of the same idea.
I'll summarise the ideas and themes that stood out in my reading of the Meditations.
A universal order
Marcus regularly talks about a universal order which he believes governs all things. He refers to this order in various ways, including god / the gods, Nature, and the Whole. He describes this order almost as if it were conscious:
Nothing which benefits the Whole can be harmful to the part, and the Whole contains nothing which is not to its benefit.Extract from Book 10, Chapter 6
From this perspective he insists on the existence of the gods, and that the order they bring about is inherently good:
Now if the gods took thought for me and for what must happen to me, they will have taken thought for my good. It is not easy to conceive of a thoughtless god, and what possible reason could they have had to be bent on my harm? What advantage would there have been from that either for themselves or for the common good, which is the main concern of their providence? If they did not take individual thought for me, then certainly they took thought for the common good, and since what happens to me is a consequential part of that, I should accept and welcome it.Extract from Book 6, Chapter 44
The divinity of rationality
A quintessential idea of Stoicism is the importance of human logic and rationality, and Marcus applies a religious fervour to this. He describes the directing mind as the "god within". While he also maintains the existence of the actual gods (the "god without"), it is rather striking to deify rationality itself.
He later applies this concept when discussing good and evil, combining it with the universal order:
The sinner sins against himself: the wrongdoer wrongs himself, by making himself morally bad.Book 9, Chapter 4
Humans sin against the universal order and themselves when they act irrationally, and when they do not accept - or contravene - things brought about by Nature:
The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things. Secondly, when it turns away from another human being, or is even carried so far in opposition as to intend him harm - such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger. [...] Fourthly, whenever it dissimulates, doing or saying anything feigned or false. [...] And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and the rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state - the Universe.Extract from Book 2, Chapter 16
Marcus regularly argues to treat these sinners with patience, as they do not understand their own actions. This serves mostly as a reminder to himself, and he appears to have struggled in applying this throughout his life.
When someone does you some wrong, you should consider immediately what judgement of good or evil led him to wrong you. When you see this, you will pity him, and not feel surprise or anger. You yourself either still share his view of good, or something like it, in which case you should understand and forgive: if, on the other hand, you no longer judge such things as either good or evil, it will be the easier for you to be patientBook 7, Chapter 26
While Marcus is strongly theistic, and insists in the existence of the gods, he doesn't tie purpose to them:
The Whole is either a god - then all is well: or if purposeless - some sort of random arrangement of atoms or molecules - you should not be without purpose yourself.Extract from Book 9, Chapter 28
Humans are created for each other, and all inhabit the common City of Zeus. Their purpose is thus to serve each other, and to contribute to the 'common good' of all mankind:
Best for each is what suits his own condition and nature: and my nature is both rational and social. As Antoninus, my city and country is Rome: as a human being, it is the world. So what benefits these two cities is my only good.Extract from Book 6, Chapter 44
Every creature must do what follows from its own constitution. The rest of creation is constituted to serve rational beings (just as in everything else the lower exists for the higher), but rational beings are here to serve each other. So the main principle in man's constitution is the social.Extract from Book 7, Chapter 55
As mankind's purpose is a social one, to separate oneself from society is contrary to Nature. The same is true for actively harming each other through words or actions.
Accepting one's own lot
Given Marcus' establishment of a benevolent universal order, he concludes that each person's position is as it should be, so one that accepts what life gives them is in accordance with Nature:
All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now - if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to reverence and justice. To reverence, so that you come to love your given lot: it was Nature that brought it to you and you to it.Extract from Book 12, Chapter 1
Antoninus does not entirely ignore that his own lot in life differs significantly from that of others:
How clearly it strikes you that there is no other walk of life so conducive to the exercise of philosophy as this in which you now find yourself!Book 11, Chapter 7
He does also believe that change to the status quo is required, particularly in that which contradicts the natural order:
Farce, war, frenzy, torpor, slavery! Day by day those sacred doctrines of yours will be wiped out, whenever you conceive and admit them untested by natural philosophy.Book 10, Chapter 9
Don't hope for Plato's Utopian republic, but be content with the smallest step forward, and regard even that result as no mean achievement.Extract from Book 9, Chapter 29
Perhaps his position is that one should accept the lot Nature gives you, but should work against the unnatural acts by irrational people contravening the Whole?
As one's emotions inhibits one's rationality, they should be controlled to not tarnish the divinity of the directing mind.
Marcus describes some sort of meditation as a method of control over one's mind and body:
Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more.Extract from Book 4, Chapter 3.4
He also encourages mastery over both pleasure and pain:
He responds to the divinity seated within him, and this renders the man unsullied by pleasures, unscathed by any pain, untouched by any wrong, unconscious of any wickedness; a wrestler for the greatest prize of all, to avoid being thrown by any passion [...]Extract from Book 3, Chapter 4.3
Pain is something to be borne...
Whenever you suffer pain, have ready to hand the thought that pain is not a moral evil and does not harm your governing intelligence: pain can do no damage either to its rational or to its social nature.Extract from Book 7, Chapter 64
While pleasure can draw us in and control us, preventing us from serving the Whole:
Because it is not right that the rational and social good should be rivalled by anything of a different order, for example the praise of the many, or power, or wealth, or the enjoyment of pleasure. All these things may seem to suit for a little while, but they can suddenly take control and carry you away.Extract from Book 3, Chapter 6.3
Marcus applies an analytical reductionism to things in order to control his reactions to them. Things that cause pleasure and pain are superficial, and breaking them down provides a sober perspective - once these shallow things are cast off, one can instead focus on the important.
Ask then, what is this which is now making its impression on me? What is it composed of? How long in the nature of things will it last? What virtue is needed to meet it - gentleness, for example, or courage, truthfulness, loyalty, simplicity, self- sufficiency, and so on?Extract from Book 3, Chapter 11.2
And he insists that 'all is as thinking makes it so' - the mind's reaction produces these emotions, positive and negative. Control over one's thoughts provides control over one's feelings.
Look at causation stripped bare of its covers; look at the ulterior reference of any action. Consider, what is pain? What is pleasure? What is death? What is fame? Who is not himself the cause of his own unrest? Reflect how no one is hampered by any other; and that all is as thinking makes it so.Book 12, Chapter 8
Life and death
Two recurring themes are the ever-changing nature of the universe, and the idea that same sorts of events occur repeatedly in cycles.
Marcus reminds us of the short amount of time we have, highlighting that we should endeavour to use it to the best of our abilities - bettering ourselves and serving the Whole.
It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of whom you constitute an emanation: and that there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.Extract from Book 2, Chapter 4
On the other hand, the sameness of things appears to provide a comfort when
considering death, as past a certain point there will be nothing new.
Death is viewed as part of the natural order of things, and is therefore
something to be accepted rather than feared: 'it is nothing more than a function
of nature - and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere
child' (Book 2, Chapter 12).
It is also viewed as something of a great equaliser - as all share the same fate. Simultaneously, the ever-changing universe will quickly wash away most if not all evidence of your life, therefore to be concerned with fame and legacy is a foolish waste of time.
So always remember these two things. First, that all things have been of the same kind from everlasting, coming round and round again, and it makes no difference whether one will see the same things for a hundred years, or two hundred years, or for an infinity of time. Second, that both the longest-lived and the earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.Book 2, Chapter 14.2
It is quite clear that Marcus held some contempt for his peers. Interspersed with his regular reminders that 'all men are brothers' and that sinners act out of ignorance are vague entries in which he criticises unnamed others:
A black character, an effeminate, unbending character, the character of a brute or dumb animal: infantile, stupid, fraudulent, coarse, mercenary, despotic.Book 4, Chapter 28
Children's tantrums and toys, 'tiny spirits carrying corpses' - the Underworld in the Odyssey strikes more real!Book 9, Chapter 24
The conflicting nature of these entries highlights the difficulties Marcus had in practicing his own philosophy - of to loving and living for mankind. The regularity in which such passages appear in the Meditations suggest this remained a problem throughout his life.
He recommends patience in dealing with 'sinners' and other flawed individuals, but also reminds himself that sometimes his judgment maybe incorrect:
If he did wrong, the harm is to himself. But perhaps he did not do wrong.Book 9, Chapter 24
It's rather interesting to see the combination of self-criticism and criticism of others. Marcus appears was fully cognizant of his own failures in adhering to his philosophical beliefs, showing some humility in the man who held one of the most powerful positions of his time.
Marcus' obsessive reductionism
While I can respect the criticism of giving in to emotion and allowing it to affect your rationality, Marcus occasionally takes this to the extreme.
You will think little of the entertainment of song or dance or all-in wrestling if you deconstruct the melodic line of a song into its individual notes and ask yourself of each of them: 'Is this something that overpowers me?' You will recoil from that admission. So too with a comparable analysis of dance by each movement and each pose, and the same again with wrestling. Generally, then, with the exception of virtue and its workings, remember to go straight to the component parts of anything, and through that analysis come to despise the thing itself. And the same method should be applied to the whole of life.Book 9, Chapter 24
Here he applies his deconstruction to music and similar arts. This absolutism strikes me as unhealthy - a balance can be struck between allowing yourself enjoyment and indulging in them excessively. I expect most people would struggle to maintain such an ideal, and have to wonder how it affected Marcus - whether these words were a symptom of his misanthropy or a depression.
Similar deconstruction of sexual matters, combined with his thankfulness at having left sex to his later years, marks him as a rather asexual individual. This interpretation could be entirely misjudged, considering he had 14 children. He doesn't go into much detail when discussing his own sexual activities, but we can assume he'd be strongly in favour of controlling one's lust.
An emperor accepting his own lot
Marcus' arguments for 'accepting one's own lot' didn't sit right with me when considering that they were written by an emperor. Certainly his position gave him liberties and comforts few others possessed, so it is easy to scoff at an emperor telling himself to accept what life has given him.
This emperor, however, seems to regard his royal status with disdain quite often - 'Let nobody any more hear you blaming palace life: don't hear yourself blaming it.' (Book 8, Chapter 9). He comments on the conflicts between his ideals of virtue and the behaviour commonly attributed to those who have shared his station. On the other hand, he also sees that he can exercise his virtues particularly effectively in his walk of life (see earlier quotation of Book 11, Chapter 7).
Marcus does give the impression of a man striving to be a good king according to his own ideals, and shows some vision for a better future. Though he spent most of his rule in military campaigns, he apparently spent some of his time dealing with legal matters involving freeing slaves and managing guardianship, and respected the Senate more than other Roman dictators before and after him.
Perhaps this philosophy is just his version of Divine Right, with which he justifies his position - Roman emperors were deified after all. Or perhaps that is being too harsh, and as Marcus quotes: 'A king's lot: to do good and be damned'. Accepting one's lot in life does appear to be a common Stoic teaching, so it's not entirely fair to complain of Marcus applying it to his own life.
Emotions are natural but must be controlled
For someone who worships Nature, arguing for mankind to exert control over their emotions strikes me as a strange contradiction. Surely pleasure and pain, which are natural and instinctual parts of us, are not inherently bad? The conflict here appears to be between nature and rationality, both things which Marcus worships in a way. Does the divinity of rationality supersede the divinity of Nature? This seems to be an implicit conclusion in his writing. Perhaps the justification is that emotions are more animalistic than rationality. Despite both having come about naturally, logic developed later as we evolved intelligence, so the latter should stay in control.
The Meditations are a curiosity, but I must admit I didn't find it the most pleasant or smoothest of journeys. It took significantly longer to read through compared to my average book, and I had to digest it small pieces at a time. This may be partly due to the dryness of the subjects - no, I don't read much philosophy - but also the nature of a personal journal. Antoninus used his writings to convince himself of things, so ideas, arguments, and beliefs are repeatedly mentioned and reformulated in different ways. I recommend jumping between the translated text and notes to get additional context while the chapters are still fresh your mind.
The text doesn't serve as the best introduction into Stoicism - it being the opinions of just one man who is considered to be a member of the school of thought. A better overview might be gained from a combination of multiple perspectives, exploring how Stoicism is applied in practice, how it has developed over time. On top of that, the religious flavour Marcus applies in his philosophy certainly doesn't suit me.
If you're particularly enamoured with ancient Roman history, you may find it interesting to delve into the minds of one of its significant figures. However, if you're interested in the emperor recounting and discussing contemporary events, you'll be left disappointed.
Some of Marcus Aurelius' ideas are timeless, but you can probably explore them better elsewhere.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Diskin Clay (Introducer), Martin Hammond (Translator), Penguin Classics, 2006, ISBN 978-0140449334