Some meditations on Meditations

“I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.”

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is perhaps the most intimate ancient text I’ve ever experienced. Reading it can at times feel almost intrusive, in particular in the moments when it feels most like a private journal that the composer turned to when he felt troubled. It is filled with gems of wisdom and insight, often of the hard truth variety (e.g. “‘No thief can steal your will’—so Epictetus” and “A spider is proud to trap a fly. Men are proud of their own hunting—a hare, a sprat in the net, boars, bears, Sarmatian prisoners. If you examine their motives, are they not all bandits?”)

Ancient scholars may tell you that Meditations is unlike any other ancient text that has survived. Well, they do tend to love their superlatives. It only makes sense when you love something. In the case of Meditations, yes, it does feel singular. It’s profoundly moving to read an emperor cutting himself down to size, an emperor trying to give himself a good reason to get out of bed every morning, an emperor fearing his virtue being overrun by his vices, an emperor reminding himself what his ‘real’ job is: to be a good person and all it entails.

Some entries (and books, one and two in particular) can feel put together, as if they are meant to be read by more than the composer. Others can be no more than a sentence fragment or an exclamatory statement, an exhortation, scolding, or questioning of himself, leaving us to ponder endlessly what he was responding to. For example: “Let nobody any more hear you blaming palace life: don’t hear yourself blaming it”…blaming it for what?!

Book 11 ends with a string of 17 quotes, about half attributed to Epictetus, the rest to Homer, Hesiod, Epicurus, and to sources unknown. Elsewhere in the Meditations, Marcus quotes Euripides, Plato, and others. A kind of triangulation occurs: the philosopher, his readers, the sources. What was Marcus going through and thinking about when he quoted Homer’s Odysseus after he has triumphed over Polyphemus—“‘And the heart within me laughed”?

Have you read Meditations? What are your thoughts?

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