I’ve finished Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.”
Daily Stoic has a terrific review (see end of post) which is a meditation, in its own right, on what this Roman Emperor jotted down in notes that were never intended to be seen by anyone other than himself.
Reading the private thoughts of an actual Emperor of Rome is a bit of excitement in itself and, I guess, a completely unrepeatable experience for any reader of books: purely private jottings from a genuine philosopher who happened to be ruling the world’s greatest empire.
Of course, his notes have been entitled by later editors as “Meditations,” so we know when we pick it up that it’s going to be philosophy. But think about it for a moment. He didn’t think of these notes as philosophical meditations. He was just writing down lessons and observations that he wanted to work out for himself, things he wanted to keep fresh in his mind, as he went about his daily work. So what we should expect is a raw view into the mind of this man/emperor. Not the curated product of his intelligence for our philosophical consumption, but rather his daily thoughts, unedited.
And we do get that, but it turns out that this Emperor’s mind was not occupied with Big Events of State, such as you might expect. Nowhere in his sticky-notes-to-himself do we see him asking himself, for example, “What should I do with Asia today?” He’s not thinking about this-or-that law, or the affairs of his undoubtedly immense personal estate, or about the next war, or the last one. Instead he’s telling himself the best thoughts to haul himself out of bed in the morning; urging himself not to worry about how bad people smell sometimes; reminding himself to be patient with those who irritate him; to be helpful to those who are not helpful themselves. He’s tired of dealing with Annoying People.
Of course his mind had to be occupied, constantly, with laws and battles and plans, because nothing else was his occupation. But his notes, again, were the things that gnawed away at him, thoughts that he couldn’t put away. You really get the sense that these unedited notes reflect his most persistent thoughts.
So a Roman Emperor is just like us; his mind is full of the same stuff that occupies ours.
But not quite. His mind does differ, but not because he’s an emperor. It’s his thoughtfulness and philosophy that set his mind apart — the bend of his mind toward constant reflection on the eternal.
And in all this, he’s continually dedicating himself to serving others justly, to treat them kindly even when they are not, to really listen to people and understand their thoughts, etc. It’s astounding to see such feeling and commitment in a man when you remember how much power he commanded.
Daily Stoic says that Marcus Aurelius is the exception to the rule, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we say, then, that he somehow resisted the corrupting influence of his power, we’re left wondering whether other emperors, if they had written purely private notes, might well have taken up the page with questions like, “What province of Asia should I conquer today?” Maybe another emperor would, in fact, have spent his time thinking and writing about his enemies. Who knows. What we do know is that Marcus Aurelius was not occupying his mind with thoughts about power and how to use it: so we get thoughts that are human and humble on the one hand (don’t let annoying people get under your skin) and philosophical on the other.
Marcus Aurelius, like the Stoics in general, placed great store on work, especially public service. I wonder if it was his focus on daily work — on daily interactions with people, how unimportant they were in one way and how important in another — that saved him from the temptations of power. I mean in a very basic way: he trained his mind to be occupied with anything but power and its glamor. He trained his mind not to go there. Surely that mental and psychological discipline had a role in preserving him from the corruption of power.
I’m asking this because only a few days ago I read “Confession,” in which Tolstoy, struggling with the idea of inevitable death and unable to find any sturdy meaning to hold onto, saw something good and possibly even wise in the peasants who occupied themselves principally with the daily work in front of them. These people, he noticed, did not fear death the way he did; or at least they seemed to come to the end of their lives with a kind of acceptance that he was struggling to find. Tolstoy really seems to embrace this, at one point even calling his himself and his social class a parasite to society — as if he no longer wished to struggle with paralyzing philosophical questions as a man of leisure, and now saw the need to enter into service of others.
I wonder if Tolstoy knew about “Meditations”, and if he could have found some meaning there. Marcus Aurelius speaks about the inevitability of death constantly, and not entirely without fear, of course; he was human, and the sheer number of times that he speaks about the inevitability of death shows that it was not a fully conquered fear. But he saw death as just another event in nature’s design, a transformation and not an end.
Often in these posts I like to pick out a few short passages or quotes that stand out in a book as particularly moving or philosophical. But “Meditations” is nothing but a collection of such passages.
It’s impossible to read “Meditations” quickly. I tried to read it at my usual reading pace, but it slowed me down. Reflections have to be read reflectively; there’s no other way to understand them.
In my last post I listed some passages in which Marcus Aurelius speaks, a la Carl Sagan, about the world as a small point in space. There are many such great passages in “Meditations,” but those are not even the ones that hook themselves into you most deeply.
I am going to quote just one passage, at the very start of Book Ten:
To my soul: are you ever going to achieve goodness? Ever going to be simple, whole, and naked–as plain to see as the body that contains you? Know what an affectionate and loving disposition would feel like?
That stopped me cold, and I had to stop reading for the night.