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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy


Marcus Aurelius

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To purchase the Meditations

Title: Meditations
Author: Marcus Aurelius
Genre: Philosophy
Written: ca. 180
Length: 410 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
- US editions: Loeb Classical Library (trans. C.R.Haines)
Penguin Classic (trans. Maxwell Staniforth)
Oxford World's Classics (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson)
Everyman's Library (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson)
Dover Thrift (trans. George Long)
- UK editions Loeb Classical Library
Penguin Classic
Oxford World's Classics
Everyman's Library
Dover Thrift
- Canada Meditations (Loeb Classical Library)
- France Pensées pour moi-même
- Deutschland Selbstbetrachtungen
  • This review refers specifically to the Loeb Classical Library edition of the works of Marcus Aurelius (volume 58, simply titled Marcus Aurelius), edited and translated by C.R. Haines, and first published 1916 (revised 1930). It is the only widely available text that gives both the original Greek text as well as an English translation. It includes an Introduction to the text itself, as well as one on Stoicism, a Bibliography, indices of Matters and of Proper Names, and a Glossary of Greek Terms. Beside the Meditations it also includes Speeches and Sayings by Marcus Aurelius, and a Note on Christians
  • A variety of other translations of the Meditations are also available (see above).
    • The George Long translation was first published as The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in 1862
    • A.S.L. Farquharson's translation was first published in 1944
    • Maxwell Staniforth's translation was first published in 1964
  • Other translations include those by Meric Casaubon (1634, the first English version), Jeremy Collier (1701), James Moor and Thomas Hutcheson (1742), and G.H. Rendall (1898). C.R.Haines briefly discusses the merits and reception of these and other translations in his introduction to the Loeb Classical Library edition.
  • The George Long translation is also available online, at a number of sites, including here, at the Internet Classics Archive

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Our Assessment:

A- : an interesting stoic collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 4/4/2003 Blake Morrison
The Independent . 15/2/2003 Joan Smith
TLS . 6/6/2003 Miriam Griffin

  From the Reviews:
  • "How far they can make you feel better will depend on your belief in human progress. Marcus is clear on the point. All of this has happened before (.....) Shit happens. The gods are unfathomable. No one's to blame. Marcus's line on this might seem to induce a certain passivity. But stoicism doesn't mean quiescence. (...) Some of Marcus's moral judgments are batty (.....) As a critic once said, the Meditations are an "unassailable wintry kingdom". But in the desert of 2003, their icy blasts are refreshing and restorative. They tell you the worst. And having heard the worst, you feel less bad." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian

  • "(W)hat is so striking about the Meditations is the complete absence of anything like development. What we have here is not so much a great man's emerging philosophy as a continuing -- and, I suspect, doomed -- attempt to stave off depression, bad temper and existential despair." - Joan Smith, The Independent

  • "Writing for himself, Marcus often repeats, compresses and produces relatively unvarnished prose. Hays gives as his aim to render both the content and the texture in readable English. His translation conveys well the pithy and colloquial chapters (.....) A reader attuned to philosophy could not say, as Matthew Arnold did of a new translation in his day (or as we might say even of the rather stilted Loeb Library translation by C. R. Haines), "Through all the dubiousness and involved manner of the Greek, Mr. Long has firmly seized upon the clear thought which is certainly at the bottom of that troubled wording. An Englishman who reads to live and does not live to read, may henceforth let the Greek original repose upon its shelf." " - Miriam Griffin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

Please note that this review refers specifically to the Loeb Classical Library edition of the works of Marcus Aurelius, edited and translated by C.R.Haines. All quotes are taken from this edition

       The great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus famously wrote down and collected his thoughts and reflections, a summa of his outlook on life and how he thought it should be lived. This collection, commonly known as the Meditations (though he just called it "to himself"), survives as a central document of Stoic thought and has remained immensely popular through the ages.
       Marcus Aurelius is among the few Roman emperors whose reputation remains very high. A noble, decent fellow, he ruled during difficult times. The popular Meditations is seen as testament that he was not concerned with everlasting fame or personal glory -- and that he was an educated, thoughtful soul.
       The Meditations is a collection of short pieces, collected in twelve separate books. The pieces range from a few paragraphs in length to single lines. He begins with reflections on what lessons he has taken from relatives, teachers, and friends (e.g.: "From Alexander the Grammarian, not to be captious"). Much of the rest can, indeed, be seen as an exposition on these basic (and often very general) maxims, but Marcus Aurelius also goes considerably further.
       Stoicism is the philosophy he embraced, and Stoicism becomes his approach to life. In his brief introduction to this philosophy-cum-religion, C.R.Haines suggests that it it is basically the belief that:

From virtue alone can happiness and peace of mind result, and virtue consists in submission to the higher Power and all that he sends us, in mastery over our animal nature, in freedom from all perturbation, and in the entire independence of the Inner Self.
       True to this creed, Marcus Aurelius was no party animal. And he did his best with that "virtue" notion -- though that is always a tough one. The Meditations offers all his learned wisdom from along the way, making it a guide to life -- indeed, an early type self-help manual.
       Marcus Aurelius admits to fallibility, weakness, the occasional misstep -- but he always presses on on the virtuous path. It is almost admirable.
       Most of the ideas he presents are, by and large, fairly sensible. Particularly praiseworthy is his repeated emphasis on mortality: one shouldn't worry about fame and posterity because one wasn't going to be there ("fame after death is only forgetfulness"). Indeed, many of his finest passages are on the insignificance of man, of how small the individual is in the big picture ("of the life of man the duration is but a point" or even: "for the whole earth is but a point").
       Still, Marcus Aurelius' cry to live for the day isn't your usual call of carpe diem. No, he expects more:
Revere the Gods, save mankind. Life is short. This only is the harvest of earthly existence, a righteous disposition and social acts.
       This is no doubt admirable (and particularly welcome coming from someone who governs others), but it sets the bar pretty high. Virtue and soul-searching and focussing on the self and not worrying too much about others' petty concerns and deeds (beyond gently trying to show them the right way) are all well and good, but Marcus Aurelius also takes it further. "Efface imagination !" he says -- repeatedly. Or -- even worse:
Away with thy books ! Be no longer drawn aside by them: it is not allowed. But as one already dying disdain the flesh.
       No passions, self-improvement limited to ... well, the most boring areas, no wallowing in flesh ? And no books ? Well, we take it cum grano salis, as Marcus Aurelius scribbled away compiling his own book, but still .....
       Marcus Aurelius' philosophy maybe good for us (or at least for society as a whole), and aspects of it certainly may be eminently useful. We shouldn't worry about our deaths and posterity. We should be virtuous (in the ways he means), calm, reflective. But a healthy dose of realism suggests that much of what he says is impractical and impracticable. It may, for example, be true that: "The best way of avenging thyself is not to do likewise", but in many situations it may not be the most suitable response.
       Marcus Aurelius seems to have been an estimable man, and so it is easy to see in his pithy sayings profound wisdom that should guide us. A better way of judging the value and use of his philosophy seems, to us, not to be in considering Marcus Aurelius, but rather in his legacy. If he was as wise and such a good guide as these writing suggest then they should have helped influence and shape those closest to him. Say ... his son. Sure, dad wasn't around much and couldn't exert too much influence (already a black mark against wise and otherwise worthy Marcus Aurelius), but at least he could have done everything to ensure his kids get a proper, perhaps even Stoic, upbringing. Instead Marcus Aurelius gave the Roman empire Commodus, as nutty, nasty, and excessive as almost any Roman emperor one can think of. 'Bad genes' might have had something to do with it, but certainly Marcus Aurelius failed miserably as a parent -- and, in this case, as a philosopher.
       Marcus Aurelius was a good ruler, so his philosophy was of some day-to-day use, but he also seems to have been a somewhat withdrawn intellectual (beating himself up about his intellectuality). Stoicism may have been the way to go for him, but Commodus' revolt would suggest it doesn't always travel well. As with all religions and philosophies the wisest course of action is surely: practise it, but please don't preach it.
       Marcus Aurelius wrote:
But away with thy thirst for books, that thou mayest die not murmuring but with a good grace, truly and from they heart grateful to the Gods.
       Thanks for the advice, we say, but we'll happily murmur our last breaths.

       Though perhaps not the most useful guide to life, the Meditations are an interesting and good read. Marcus Aurelius had some sense of style and presentation, and while some of the exhortations (especially the repeated ones) can be wearing the book is neatly presented. The short, varied pieces also make it a good book to read bits at a time. And there are lots of nuggets of what sound like wisdom (though one should treat those, as one should all such apparent nuggets, with extreme care).
       Though a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius wrote in Greek. In his preface, C.R.Haines acknowledges that the ancient text is "often difficult and in many places corrupt beyond cure". Numerous translations exist; the Loeb edition is, of course, recommended because it offers both the Greek text and C.R.Haines translation. The translation is a solid one, though the language does sound a bit stilted. Still, having the Greek text facing the English is invaluable, allowing the adventurous to compare and even read Marcus Aurelius' true thoughts beside the paler English translation.
       The Loeb edition also offers an introduction, as well as Marcus Aurelius' other writings -- a smattering of sayings (collected from other sources, some passed down in Latin) and other odds and ends. Of particular use are the indices -- making it easy to look up memorable passages and people.
       The other, cheaper editions also have a variety of introductions and explanatory notes -- and come in a variety of generally more modern translations. We have not compared the various editions.

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Meditations: Reviews: Marcus Aurelius: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180) was emperor of Rome from 7 March 161 to his death, 17 March 180.

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