Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

November 22, 2022

     I have long been intrigued by this Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. His meditations are rather hard to read in these modern times, because of the style of writing way back then, and also the need for quite comprehensive notes to explain so many points and references, even to someone with a reasonable classical education. I have been listening to a good Librivox recording, which has made them rather more approachable and accessible; they seem to have been designed for listening, in a similar way to the Qur’an which is intended for recitation rather than reading.

He enjoyed an extremely powerful and privileged position, in the years before the Roman Empire became so large as to be unmanageable; he clearly had the luxury of unlimited undisturbed time to think, to philosophise and presumably dictate his thoughts to his slave… He comes across as a thinker, someone wise, but also someone endowed with large amounts of common sense. He reflects on the purpose and meaning of life, and its counterpart, the inevitability of death, and how a mortal can face and come to terms with that necessary eventuality. Nothing new there, we may think, but here is one of the first to try and articulate a response. And it’s interesting that he continually returns to this particular issue a number of times; I found myself thinking, here is a man – an emperor, but still a man, and aware of this – who is at some level wanting to understand and to rationalise his fears: for me, this made him more human, somehow.

He’s also interested in the nature of the universe, fate and resignation, and his position is that the gods determine everything…

At some level, he’s interested in the same things that I spend a fair amount of time wondering about. There are wisdom writings in most religions and cultures, and some are rather more accessible than others. I’ve found that with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, there’s an awful lot of chaff and not much wheat to glean once the tribal histories of the Jewish people, their wanderings and the misdeeds of their kings are stripped out. And although the Qur’an doesn’t spend as much time on history, is is very repetitive, as a book originally designed for public recitation will inevitably be.

The Wisdom books of the Bible, on the other hand, I have always found attractive and thought-provoking, and as I’ve read more widely I’ve come to realise that they contemplate similar notions to, and say the same things as did Confucius and the Buddha, and various Greeks and Romans, and Marcus Aurelius joins them. For my money, the orientals are rather too enigmatic – again, it’s a different mode of expression that it’s harder for us to tap into. The Greeks and the Romans are a lot more straightforward, in acknowledging that there are things they don’t understand, there are powers above and beyond us, that we humans are limited in what we can do and mortal. And they have no sense of there being a life after death either. For me, the jury is out on that one, but increasingly I do think that the idea of a hereafter is part of the attempt of religion to comfort us in facing the awful and inevitable end.

In a nutshell, if you’re a fan of the Preacher, aka Qoheleth, aka Ecclesiastes, you’ll probably enjoy Marcus Aurelius.

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