Sunday, May 17, 2020

Book Review: Meditations

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Penguin Edition) is the personal diary of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180 CE. It's interesting how an emperor from over 18 centuries ago could still be considered relevant today. He was a follower of the Stoic philosophy of life and much of the book consist of his exhortations to himself.
  • I wouldn't recommend this book as a practical guide to Stoicism however. While the Penguin translation is OK, translations can sound stilted especially when the original text is from 1800 years ago. Some of the book's examples can be hard to relate to today, and other times there are no examples at all. Since the book was just written as notes to himself, it's often disorganized and repetitive.
  • To get a gist of the work, you can just read excerpts from it, such as Chapter 2 or 9. If you don't care about using a more modern translation or footnotes, you can get free translations online (such as the MIT version). To get a modern take on Stoicism, I recommend A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
  • Themes
    • Marcus had some doubts about his religious beliefs but argues that his principles are true either way. For example, he often mentions the question of whether nature is unified/intelligent (as the Stoics argued), or random atoms (as per the Epicureans).
    • The key principle of Stoicism is that external circumstances cannot determine how you feel, your own mind is in charge:
      > Today I escaped from all bothering circumstances - or rather I threw them out. They were nothing external, but inside me, my own judgements.
    • Another related principle is that nature is good and there's no reason to be upset about what happens, that's just the way things are. Marcus mentions this often about death, and the final chapter focuses on this topic.
    • He often mentions how you shouldn't get too upset about things since in the grand scheme does it really matter? Zoom out and see how small everything is. Also, everyone will be dead soon anyways, and forgotten. But don't worry about that since that's just the course of nature.
      In man's life his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux, his perception fogged, his whole bodily decomposition rotting, his mind a whirling, his fortune unpredictable, his fame unclear. To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion.

      What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others' action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with the glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which ever living creature is composed. Now if there is nothing fearful for the elements themselves in their constant changing of each into another, why should one look anxiously in prospect at the change and dissolution of them all? This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature. (End of Ch. 2)
       (Review also posted on Goodreads)

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