by Marcus Aurelius
Not long ago, I was reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors to Perception with the full intention of reviewing it, but I was struggling to come up with anything meaningful for discussion. I found the book to be extraordinary in many ways, even important enough to help me through some difficult times, but I couldn’t effectively delve deeper, leaving myself with nothing better than a shaky foundation for a critique even after a second reading almost immediately after the first. Ultimately, I decided to shelf the book and move on, review-less, rather than attempting to force something that may not be there. I only bring this up because my experience with Meditations was the exact opposite. I felt I was likely to give it a go, hopefully enjoy it, and likely have little to talk about afterward. Turns out, not only did Aurelius’ straightforward lessons affect me more strongly than I expected, but I really wanted to discuss them during the read and after finishing it––and a review seemed like a reasonable enough way to do so.
Meditations is unique with respect to the literature I’ve hitherto consumed. It consists of a set of personal notes its author had no intention of publishing, notes with perceived goals of helping to focus his thoughts, to avoid distractions, to be moral, to not let the weight of the world crush his spirit. I found the inherent teachings to be useful in a way similar to those in The Essential Rumi or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that they helped me to better understand myself and the world around me, though I may not agree with specifics. (A great example is Aurelius’ belief that the universe is in divine order, always in the service of good.) The author has a tendency to simplify grand concepts, often potentially to the point of oversimplification, but I didn’t find this to turn me away from the significance of his musings, in part because I understand that my perception has the benefit of near two additional millennia of information at its disposal, and yet he still hit on concepts that gave me pause. As well, this simple focus allows for clarity; rather than a muddling or confusion that could result from a growing and unravelling of these ideas, Aurelius manages to successfully express and direct thought. The repetitive nature of passages may also be a deal breaker for some, but I see it as a great way to solidify concepts within the mind, and this definitely makes sense within the original context.
(I most certainly need to at least briefly make mention of the superb translation in the edition I read. Not that I read other interpretations to which to compare this one, Gregory Hays approached the task with a candid honesty that I appreciated. He was clear when his analysis greatly differed from previous translations, when things were indecipherable or meanings were incomprehensible, and when he had suspicions regarding the source material that could affect their perceived authenticity––such as where headings were added to a smattering of passages, potentially added by a reader from a later period. With no intention of disparaging other translators when doing so, I highly recommend picking up this edition if you can find it.)
But, far and beyond the greatest reason Aurelius’ Meditations affected me to such a great extent, I believe, is that it provided me with so much comfort, in a way similar to Omar Khayyám’s rubáiyát. The Roman emperor comes across as a troubled, struggling human, who clearly held a low view of people, himself included, and often needed reminders that life was worth living, that he was strong enough to endure the pain of the world graciously and unselfishly. And I think convincingly demonstrating that it’s possible to be good even from a place of cynical weakness is enough to make this book hugely important.