Here we go again. I finished this one a couple of weeks ago, and it is by far the oldest and weirdest book I’ve ever read outside a classroom. I thought I was crazy when I tried The New Atlantis a few years back, but this one takes the cake. It did have a purpose, however.
Title: Meditations Author: Marcus Aurelius (tr. Gregory Hays) Genre: Philosophy/Self-Help Year: c. 179 AD (translated edition 2003)
That year is not a typo. I actually read a book that’s over 1800 years old. As I don’t know Greek (I have only a rudimentary understanding of Latin; Greek would be my next target), I’m reading Meditations in the translation by Gregory Hays, which is a little unconventional compared to its predecessors. But it’s one of the newest and most accessible, so I gave it a shot.
Okay, so that explains the book itself, but not why I chose it. I’ve been interested in Stoicism for a couple of years, as I recall reading sometime in 2018 that some had found comfort in it, using the philosophy to alleviate their depression. Well, that didn’t work for me then, and reading what’s effectively one testament of the Stoic Bible didn’t help matters. I do think Stoicism has some merit, and there are a lot of good ideas in there, but…it’s not for me. It’s too fatalistic, in my opinion.
Considering I’m reading the words of a Roman emperor, you’d think I would have more good things to say. I really don’t, though. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t intending these words to be read, and that shows. Meditations consists of 12 books full of what look like “note to self” reminders. There’s little organization, a lot of repetition, and far too much emphasis on death. (This is a guy who assumes he’s about to die, after all.) Throughout the work, we see the same theme arising time and time again: do not fear death, because it is merely the end of your allotted time.
That fits with the Stoic tradition. Death, to them, is the end of life in the physical sense only. Which is essentially one of the defining statements of a religion, come to think of it. But theirs is a simple and almost banal religion, a worship of fate and rationality above all. I’m on board with the rational part, sure. Fate? Not for me. The way I see it, if everything in our lives was already determined, there would be no reason to live.
There was a reason to read this book, however. It does have a few gems buried in the dirt of the grave. I guess you could say Meditations is the oldest example of the self-help book, the kind that’s mostly full of author narrative and pithy maxims, but with the occasional nugget of true wisdom. And reading it makes you take a closer look at yourself.
In my case, I found something I didn’t like to see, and now I’m working on removing it.