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Marcus Aurelius (born Marcus Annius Catilus Severus) was co-emperor of Rome and a Stoic philosopher. He wrote Meditations in Greek whilst on campaign between 170 and 180. Originally titled To Myself, it was meant to be a source for his own guidance and self-improvement and was not intended for public consumption. We are fortunate it has been made available because it’s incredible and still applicable today.
It’s difficult to say what Meditations is ‘about’, as it’s rather about everything. Stoics were primarily concerned with finding contentment in life by not becoming too attached to anything, similar to Zen Buddhism. It’s about minimising desires and being rational. It’s fine to love and have material possessions and such, but if those desires and emotions threaten to overwhelm one’s natural, rational state, thereby bringing about unhappiness they should be avoided.
There’s overlap between some Buddhist belief and Existentialism and Stoicism in the idea that everything we know and see will soon fade away, as will all the people and things that come after that, as did all the things that came before. So there’s no reason to get worked up about anything, really, because how important is anything at all in that context?
Aurelius was quite civic-minded, though, and viewed all people as brothers and felt that people should be allowed to do whatever they pleased as long as they were not hurting other humans–no one else’s thoughts about you had any actual effect on you. There’s excellent advice on how to deal with the purely bloody-minded (those he calls the ones who know nothing about the difference between good and evil).
There’s just general excellent advice all round. It’s a call to find your chief aim in life and devote what short time you have on earth to it, eschewing trivialities like gossip and fads. It’s a call to be your best self and to try to improve the lot of your fellow humans. It’s a call to be true to yourself, to know yourself and be honest with yourself about your own motives and desires.
I have two editions of Meditations. The Penguin Great Ideas series is the one I’m reviewing, which was translated by Maxwell Staniforth. They are smaller books–they can fit in a pocket. The Harvard Classics edition, which is translated by George Long is the other one in my library. The Penguin edition is much more accessible, though being that the Harvard Classics was from 1909 this is hardly surprising. Staniforth’s translation was highly readable. There were a few times I had to re-reading passages due to incomprehension rather than having had my mind-blown (though those moments occurred, as well) but that was entirely down to my own intellectual shortcomings.
This makes an excellent graduation gift. Everyone should read it. Everyone. 5/5