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December 2, 2011

I don’t usually read philosophy. I edited a book or two of philosophy when I worked for a university press years ago, but novels and histories are my bag.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations That said, I like to read where my interests are piqued, and, after slogging through (but loving every page of) Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I decided to tackle some Roman classics.

Thus, about a week ago, I eagerly opened Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and began reading. The Penguin Classic edition I read includes an introduction by a Reed College graduate and former professor, Diskin Clay, who describes Marcus as a philosopher in the Stoic tradition. Marcus’s mantra is “all is well when thinking makes it so”; he values restraint from passionate emotions, the divinity in man, an purposeful aim in all things. I was initially quite surprised to read that he subscribes to a view of the Whole that reminds me of the New England Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (the only other real philosopher I’ve read and a real favorite of mine, mostly because his journals are a delight to read). The passage in Clay’s introduction that illustrated this point of view best was from Book 8, chapter 57, the famous passage about the ray of light in a darkened room.

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts about reading Marcus’s Meditations.

Marcus repeats himself a lot. Clay and the translator, Martin Hammond, suggest that the repetition is because he wrote Meditations throughout his life and the passages are notes to himself about how to remember and live his life the way he was taught and how he believes he should. But I’m still a bit overwhelmed and bored by the repetition. Marcus says change is endemic to life and the universe (i.e., nature), yet he doesn’t ever change his ideas about how to live, even a tiny bit? I suppose, on one hand, you’d want to have the same beliefs and values, the same core, your whole life to be considered a good person (the primary aim of Marcus’s life). On the other hand, being open to new ideas is a good thing, so why not change some of your beliefs along the way? I think that’s what my own meditations would show—that my beliefs change and adjust as I encounter new ideas. But perhaps I’m assuming loftier thoughts or feelings for myself than are really true.

Marcus talks often about interaction with others, how we’re alike but then again not, how he should use his “directing mind” to understand others. This idea of alike and not alike is a cool paradox that I’ve thought about before. How can you really know what another is thinking or feeling? Yet there are so many times when we encounter universality of thought and feeling, as well as individuality. It’s like my Brandywine tomatoes, I guess. Several years ago I noticed an odd branch on one plant. It had started, near the plant’s bottom, as one branch, but began to divide into two ridges as it climbed upward, finally separating into two identical branches. And I really mean identical: the two branches produced exactly identical leaves and fruits—in size, shape, distance between leaves, flowering or fruiting at the same time. The twin branches, nevertheless, looked very similar to all the other branches on that plant and all my other Brandywine plants, which looked a lot like all the other tomato plants for that year and every other year I’ve planted.

Marcus has some lovely quotes in the Meditations; here are my favorites:

  • “Calculated honesty is a stiletto. There is nothing more degrading than the friendship of wolves.” (11.15)
  • “It is the gentle who have strength, sinew, and courage—not the indignant and complaining.” (11.18.10)
  • “The pride that prides itself on freedom from pride is the hardest of all to bear.” (12.27)

But the best one, because it says all you need to know, is

  • “If it is not right, don’t do it; if it is not true, don’t say it.” (12.27)

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