Today, our journey through Marcus Aurelius' Meditations begins. I am so excited to get this started — not only am I excited about this book, but also for this newsletter. Thank you for joining me.
Before we dive into the text, let me note three things.
Please try to read the text before reading what I have to say. It's better for you. What I'm writing is a guide to the text-as-it-strikes-me. I'm not an expert in this particular thinker or text, and my notes aren't a substitute for actually reading it. I'm not aspiring to be comprehensive; there will inevitably be parts of the text that I don't comment on.
I will be reading (and quoting) the Waterfield translation.I also own and will sometimes consult the Hays translation. I recommend either of these. There are also free translations online; some, I am sure, are very good. But I don't know enough about Greek to comment on them.
About Ancient Greek — I can't read it.My ability to pick up languages has always been poor. So there will be no etymological discussions, and I'll very rarely talk about the original Greek text or variances in translation.
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Today, we are reading Notebook 1 of the Meditations. This is a large portion of text — larger, in fact, than what I will usually write on in this newsletter. In future issues, we will likely focus on just a page or two.
Marcus begins the Meditations in a strange way: by compiling a list of what he is grateful for. First, he lists the virtues of his family and the lessons they have taught him. For instance, his grandfather Verus was noble in character, his father was masculine and modest, his mother was frugal, generous and reverent.The scope of the list broadens as the notebook progresses, and eventually Marcus is discussing philosophers. At the end, Marcus’ attention is on the divine — how the gods (or perhaps the Logos, or perhaps just the universe) have given him so much. He is able-bodied and healthy, for instance — and he has been able to control himself despite his urges.
We have to keep in mind some background assumptions that Marcus is making when he writes. Marcus presumes that there are human virtues — which we could think of as character traits which are most in line with our human nature. These virtues are objective; it is a matter of objective fact that these virtues are good. It is also objectively true that some people possess these virtues while others lack them. Understanding one's nature and acting appropriately given this understanding is a theme throughout the Meditations. We might summarize this lesson like this: we must know who we are in order to be good. Living ethically demands reflection on both our general human nature and our particular circumstances — thus Marcus will remind himself to act like Roman, to behave like an emperor, etc.
Marcus also presumes that there is something divine which guides the world. We will call this Providence — this is not exactly how Marcus describes it, but it is reasonably neutral for our purposes. Sometimes Marcus attributes this to the universe, sometimes to the gods, and sometimes to an unspecified God (understood here as a supreme being, perhaps).The idea is that there is a point and purpose to all that happens. There is almost something like intentionality — though we have to be careful about personified language.
With these two assumptions in mind, we should be able to understand Marcus a bit better. Marcus believes that as a matter of objective fact, he has been granted many good things in life. He was raised to be virtuous and supplied with examples for emulation; he was well-educated, providing him with the knowledge that he would need as a man, as a Roman, and as an emperor. His task, then was to properly align his beliefs and mindset with the facts.
This is what I am calling the first lesson of Stoicism. Stoicism is often seen as a hard-edged philosophy — which may explain why so many men on the internet find it appealing. But the very first thing we can learn from Marcus is that we need to align our interior life to the way the world is. And in Marcus' case (and in many cases) that means that we need to be appropriately grateful for the many things which we have not earned but nevertheless have been given — sometimes by individuals, ultimately by Providence. This hard-edged philosophy begins to seem a bit softer and a bit more human when this is emphasized.
I am currently trying to write my own version of Notebook 1. I am listing all of the things which I know I should be grateful for — even when the affective state is difficult for me to muster or maintain. I would encourage you to do the same as we prepare to make our way through Marcus' Meditations.
I have set myself a rule: I do not complain or grumble in that notebook. If I am grateful for something about my mother, this isn't the time for me to also list my grievances. I don't talk about the things in my life that cause me to be discontent. We will talk about grievances and dissatisfaction in the future, but that is a topic for another day.
I’d encourage you to try this exercise. If you’re anything like me, you can write much more freely when you know that you are writing only for yourself. So keep that in mind — you are the only audience that matters, at least for this piece of writing.
And as you try this exercise, keep in mind the notebook’s final line:
For none of the blessings I’ve listed are possible without the help of the gods or of fortune.
Even if we do not believe in the Roman gods, or if you do not believe in a God at all, I believe the attribution of blessings to fortune can be a powerful reminder in day-to-day life.
Questions for Discussion
Feel free to discuss this, and more, in the comments below. I only require that you stay reasonably on-topic and that you treat everyone with respect.
Is it possible to write a notebook like Marcus’ if one does not believe in Providence — in some sort of force that maintains all things and ensures that things will, ultimately, be good? How would you write it?
Is there significance to the order in which Marcus writes? What can we glean from the fact that he begins with his family and eventually makes his way to the divine?
Which item in Marcus’ list stood out to you? For me, I noticed his words on education — he is thankful that he was taught to spend liberally on his education.
I found Barry Strauss’ book Ten Caesars to be very helpful when I read it several years ago. The language and culture of the Roman Empire is simultaneously familiar and foreign to me, and so it was helpful to read an engaging overview of ten of the most influential men in its history. Strauss also discusses the role that many women played in the politics of Rome — often serving as power-brokers and deal-makers in the shadows of their sons and husbands.
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I took one semester of Ancient Greek in college. It did not go well. Doing poorly in that class is my chief academic regret.
These are Marcus’ natural relations. Marcus was eventually adopted by Antoninus Pius, his uncle. He inherited the throne from Antoninus. Roman emperors often passed down the throne by adoption instead of by blood lineage — Antoninus was, in fact, the adoptive son of Hadrian.
Waterfield’s notes on sexuality are very interesting. I won’t discuss the topic here, but we should at least keep in mind that Roman conceptions of sexuality were quite different than both modern conservative and progressive ideas about the subject, and so we should be careful as we discuss the matter.
It might be helpful to remind ourselves of the timeline. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180AD. The idea of the monotheistic God, like the God of Judaism and Christianity, was certainly known. But Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian. Because of this, we might find the references to God in the text to be a little hard to understand — unless, perhaps, we think of God as something like Logos, the rational order and cause of the the universe. This is related to the Christian idea of God, especially to the idea of Jesus Christ as the Logos, but it is distinct.
I respond to Jared’s first question: “Is it possible to write a notebook like Marcus’ if one does not believe in Providence?” Yes, absolutely. Isn’t that what Humanism is about,they we can lead a meaningful life if we’re guided by reason and empathy?
I think a notebook written without providence would be relying on strength of character in order to be good. That I believe in and of itself is a good thing. The belief that God or nature is there as a protection for or insurance that good will still be the conclusion for even difficult experiences in one's life, is an idea that strengthens people's convictions. Without this belief I believe the notebook would lose some of its impact for people.
The order of the writing is a biography of one's life told through influence. Starting with family and then expanding outwards with tutors, mentors, and philosophers. Ending with "gods and fortune" shows the thread that connected it all. It reminds me of a prayer of thanks.
One of the items that stood out for me was "for he was one who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which a man gets by his acts." It made me think about how today I believe most people are concerned with how they are seen, not with what they have actually done. It has something to say about character and knowing yourself. To be comfortable with the fact of doing something,hopefully for the good, and not doing it for the acclaim.