By Marcus Aurelius, Trans. by Gregory Hays
Modern Library Classics, $5.95 paper
“States will never be happy until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers.”
Plato, The Republic
Don’t we wish.
So begins Gregory Hays’ Introduction to his translation of Marcus Aurelius’ words. It seems Marcus Aurelius was fond of quoting Plato, and in Hays’ view, we could not find a better ruler who fit the description of a philosopher-king. “He never thought of himself as a philosopher,” Hays writes. “He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy developed by others.”
Marcus Aurelius was most likely first educated in reading and writing by slaves before being “handed over to private tutors to be introduced to literature…especially Vergil’s great epic, the Aeneid. However, Hays believes the real goal of his education was rhetoric, “the key to an active political career under the empire.” Unlike young students today, Marcus Aurelius trained in the art of the argument, forced to take one side or the other of the issues current in his day. The classes were conducted in Greek and Latin, so he was fluent in both languages.
Philosophy in Marcus Aurelius’ day was concerned with how to live life. According to Hays, this is a different focus than most modern schools and departments of philosophy. In ancient Rome, philosophers dealt with the questions of living, making ethical choices, constructing a just society, responding to suffering and loss, and coming to terms with death. The end result was “a set of rules to live one’s life by,” in Hays’ words.
Hays believes that this kind of philosophy was created by Socrates, the fifth century B.C. Athenian thinker. A progressive stream of this philosophical thought, one Marcus Aurelius embraces, is the Stoic school. “The movement takes its name from the stoa (‘porch’ or ‘portico’) in downtown Athens where its founder, Zeno…taught and lectured,” writes Hays.
“Of the doctrines central to the Stoic worldview,” continues Hays, “perhaps the most important is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way. More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the Stoics designated as logos. The term (from which English ‘logic’ and the suffix ‘-ology’ derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable.” Fortunately for us, Hays gives the explanation his best shot and does an admirable job of it. Logos operates in human beings and in the universe, and could be equated with nature or God. Hays believes that when John writes in his Gospel that “the Word” is God, he is “borrowing Stoic terminology.”
Everything in the world follows an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, the outcome of which is determined by logos. We can either follow this chain willingly, or be dragged along by it. Doing what is right and just is to create harmony; we also have the ability to do the opposite which will lead to hardship and difficulties, but either way, the outcome is out of our control. Therefore, Stoics believe that we should face these outcomes without emotion, without personalizing the situation. The outcome is simply the result. We cannot change it, but only accept it without losing control of our emotions and composure.
Hays boils down the philosophy to a clearly defined quest. “The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones,” he writes. “Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist?”
Marcus Aurelius offered a variety of responses to these questions. Clearly, though, his primary belief is that we must see things exactly as they are, without the coloring of subjectivity and personalization. “It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problems,” Hays writes. “This requires not merely passive acquiescence in what happens, but active cooperation with the world, with fate, and above all, with other human beings…Our duty is to act justly…” treating others as they merit. Finally, we must also see that things happen to us that are outside our control, and therefore, these things cannot hurt us. What our enemies do to us hurts our enemies far more than it damages us.
Marcus Aurelius adopts a theme of the “transience of human life,” according to Hays, an attribute not only of the Stoic philosophy, but Marcus’ character. Death is never far away—something that must be accepted as part of the cycle of life, not to be feared or despaired of, but to be embraced.
We also must put up with the foibles of others, and restrain our anger towards them, for they, too, are searching for the secret to a successful life.
The translation itself is divided into twelve books, of which the first three are titled: “Debts and Lessons”; “On the River Gran, Among the Quadi”; and “In Carnuntum.” Each book takes the form of dialogue or numbered aphorisms. It is not a narrative but a collection of sayings and words of wisdom to contemplate.
Marcus begins by attributing what he has gleaned from each “teacher” in his life. “My Grandfather Verus: Character and self-control. My father…Integrity and manliness.” Within these lessons are the precepts of Stoicism. Marcus learns “Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.”
From Maximus, Marcus learns “Self-control and resistance to distractions. Optimism in adversity—especially illness. A personality in balance: dignity and grace together. Doing your job without whining. Other people’s certainty that what he said was what he thought, and what he did was done without malice…A sense of humor.”
The thrill in all of this is not the enlightenment of the lessons. Surely, we have all heard similar aphorism and precepts before, but the connection back to ancient times of such time-tested lessons is the key. We see an ancient Roman trying to live the same way we struggle to survive in this world today. Some might look at this and say, things never change, and become depressed. The lesson from the Stoics is that the tests are always present, always active, and human beings struggle to deal with these tests of courage and strength. Therefore, to engage in such philosophical inquiry is to engage in living fully as a human being. It is what it means to be alive.
Some of the aphorism are structured like dialogues with himself. “No one could ever accuse you of being quick-witted,” he writes. “All right, but there are plenty of other things you can’t claim you ‘haven’t got in you.’ Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer—beyond excuses like ‘can’t’? And yet you still settle for less.”
Marcus Aurelius even touches on some favorite themes of literature teachers. “Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other.” Of course this makes sense, given the way Greeks and Romans view public discourse. Rhetoric and argument were central to the education of the time, and therefore, these things were the constants while subjects under debate might be as diverse as science and politics, poetry and civic duty. Reading Marcus Aurelius, I wonder if we have not become to compartmentalized in school. Even with general education courses, are we really turning out well-rounded and well-educated individuals? Marcus Aurelius desires to be cogent and well-versed in all matters, all topics. To him, this is what it means to be fully engaged in living.
The value of this book is in the way the writer lays out a schematic for life. We could all use some Stoicism right now, what with our politicians and their excesses, the pedantic and often infantile level of public discourse, and the growing superficiality and emptiness of the life of the mind. In this age of all access, of unlimited information at our fingertips, have we ever been more out of sync with the heartbeat of our world? Maybe it is time we listened more carefully to the past for the keys to the future. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as translated by Gregory Hays is an excellent place to begin.