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About the Author
Diskin Clay is professor of classical studies at Duke University.
Martin Hammond is headmaster of the Tonbridge School and has translated Homer's Iliad for Penguin Classics.
Read an Excerpt
Debts and Lessons
1. My grandfather Verus
Character and self-control.
2. My father (from my own memories and
Integrity and manliness.
3. My mother
Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the simple way she lived-not in the least like the rich.
4. My great-grandfather
To avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.
5. My first teacher
Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.
Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it. Not to be obsessed with quail-fighting or other crazes like that. To hear unwelcome truths. To practice philosophy, and to study with Baccheius, and then with Tandasis and Marcianus. To write dialogues as a student. To choose the Greek lifestyle-the camp-bed and the cloak.
The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character.
Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others. To steer clear of oratory, poetry and belles lettres.
Not to dress up just to stroll around the house, or things likethat. To write straightforward letters (like the one he sent my mother from Sinuessa). And to behave in a conciliatory way when people who have angered or annoyed us want to make up.
To read attentively-not to be satisfied with "just getting the gist of it." And not to fall for every smooth talker.
And for introducing me to Epictetus's lectures-and loaning me his own copy.
Independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos. And to be the same in all circumstances-intense pain, the loss of a child, chronic illness. And to see clearly, from his example, that a man can show both strength and flexibility.
His patience in teaching. And to have seen someone who clearly viewed his expertise and ability as a teacher as the humblest of virtues.
And to have learned how to accept favors from friends without losing your self-respect or appearing ungrateful.
An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it means to live as nature requires.
Gravity without airs.
To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to amateurs and sloppy thinkers. His ability to get along with everyone: sharing his company was the highest of compliments, and the opportunity an honor for those around him.
To investigate and analyze, with understanding and logic, the principles we ought to live by.
Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.
To praise without bombast; to display expertise without pretension.
10. The literary critic Alexander
Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or a grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just answer their question or add another example, or debate the issue itself (not their phrasing), or make some other contribution to the discussion-and casually insert the correct expression.
To recognize the malice, cunning and hypocrisy that power produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from "good families."
12. Alexander the Platonist
Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I'm too busy, unless I really am. Similarly, not to be always ducking my responsibilities to the people around me because of "pressing business."
Not to shrug off a friend's resentment-even unjustified resentment-but try to put things right.
To show your teachers ungrudging respect (the Domitius and Athenodotus story), and your children unfeigned love.
14. [My brother] Severus
To love my family, truth and justice. It was through him that I encountered Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion and Brutus, and conceived of a society of equal laws, governed by equality of status and of speech, and of rulers who respect the liberty of their subjects above all else.
And from him as well, to be steady and consistent in valuing philosophy.
And to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends' affection for you. And that when people incurred his disapproval, they always knew it. And that his friends never had to speculate about his attitude to anything: it was always clear.
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.
Never taken aback or apprehensive. Neither rash nor hesitant-or bewildered, or at a loss. Not obsequious-but not aggressive or paranoid either.
Generosity, charity, honesty.
The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.
That no one could ever have felt patronized by him-or in a position to patronize him.
A sense of humor.
16. My adopted father
Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he'd reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.
Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.
His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.
A sense of when to push and when to back off.
Putting a stop to the pursuit of boys.
His altruism. Not expecting his friends to keep him entertained at dinner or to travel with him (unless they wanted to). And anyone who had to stay behind to take care of something always found him the same when he returned.
His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely.
His constancy to friends-never getting fed up with them, or playing favorites.
Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness.
And his advance planning (well in advance) and his discreet attention to even minor things.
His restrictions on acclamations-and all attempts to flatter him.
His constant devotion to the empire's needs. His stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take responsibility-and blame-for both.
His attitude to the gods: no superstitiousness. And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.
The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance-without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn't miss them.
No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic. They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life, accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both himself and them.
His respect for people who practiced philosophy-at least, those who were sincere about it. But without denigrating the others-or listening to them.
His ability to feel at ease with people-and put them at their ease, without being pushy.
His willingness to take adequate care of himself. Not a hypochondriac or obsessed with his appearance, but not ignoring things either. With the result that he hardly ever needed medical attention, or drugs or any sort of salve or ointment.
This, in particular: his willingness to yield the floor to experts-in oratory, law, psychology, whatever-and to support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfil his potential.
That he respected tradition without needing to constantly congratulate himself for Safeguarding Our Traditional Values.
Not prone to go off on tangents, or pulled in all directions, but sticking with the same old places and the same old things.
The way he could have one of his migraines and then go right back to what he was doing-fresh and at the top of his game.
That he had so few secrets-only state secrets, in fact, and not all that many of those.
The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds-games, building projects, distributions of money and so on-because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.
No bathing at strange hours, no self-indulgent building projects, no concern for food, or the cut and color of his clothes, or having attractive slaves. (The robe from his farm at Lorium, most of the things at Lanuvium, the way he accepted the customs agent's apology at Tusculum, etc.)
He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion but decisively, and with no loose ends.
You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness-indomitable.
17. The Gods
That I had good grandparents, a good mother and father, a good sister, good teachers, good servants, relatives, friends-almost without exception. And that I never lost control of myself with any of them, although I had it in me to do that, and I might have, easily. But thanks to the gods, I was never put in that position, and so escaped the test.
That I wasn't raised by my grandfather's girlfriend for longer than I was. That I didn't lose my virginity too early, and didn't enter adulthood until it was time-put it off, even.
That I had someone-as a ruler and as a father-who could keep me from being arrogant and make me realize that even at court you can live without a troop of bodyguards, and gorgeous clothes, lamps, sculpture-the whole charade. That you can behave almost like an ordinary person without seeming slovenly or careless as a ruler or when carrying out official obligations.
That I had the kind of brother I did. One whose character challenged me to improve my own. One whose love and affection enriched my life.
That my children weren't born stupid or physically deformed.
That I wasn't more talented in rhetoric or poetry, or other areas. If I'd felt that I was making better progress I might never have given them up.
That I conferred on the people who brought me up the honors they seemed to want early on, instead of putting them off (since they were still young) with the hope that I'd do it later.
That I knew Apollonius, and Rusticus, and Maximus.
That I saw was shown clearly and often what it would be like to live as nature requires. The gods did all they could-through their gifts, their help, their inspiration-to ensure that I could live as nature demands. And if I've failed, it's no one's fault but mine. Because I didn't pay attention to what they told me-to what they taught me, practically, step by step.
That my body has held out, especially considering the life I've led.
That I never laid a finger on Benedicta or on Theodotus. And that even later, when I was overcome by passion, I recovered from it.
That even though I was often upset with Rusticus I never did anything I would have regretted later.
That even though she died young, at least my mother spent her last years with me.
That whenever I felt like helping someone who was short of money, or otherwise in need, I never had to be told that I had no resources to do it with. And that I was never put in that position myself-of having to take something from someone else.
That I have the wife I do: obedient, loving, humble.
That children had competent teachers.
Remedies granted through dreams-when I was coughing blood, for instance, and having fits of dizziness. And the one at Caieta.
That when I became interested in philosophy I didn't fall into the hands of charlatans, and didn't get bogged down in writing treatises, or become absorbed by logic-chopping, or preoccupied with physics.
All things for which "we need the help of fortune and the gods."
Reading Group Guide
1. The Meditations refers often to the need to act "unselfishly, " yet much of its advice seems to center on seeking tranquillity within oneself and ignoring the outside world. Is this a contradiction? Do other people really matter to Marcus, or is his philosophical outlook fundamentally selfish?
2. What qualities does Marcus praise his relatives and teachers for in Book 1? Are they the same qualities he seeks to acquire in the remainder of the work?
3. Marcus ruled at a time when Christianity was beginning to become more prominent in the Roman world. What elements of Christianity would he have found sympathetic? What elements would have been incompatible with his outlook? Do aspects of Marcus's Stoicism find echoes in other religious traditions, for example in Buddhism?
4. Marcus several times uses the image of life as a play (e. g. 3.8, 11.1, 12.36). What specific similarities does he see? Is the image helpful in encapsulating his philosophy in other ways?
5. "We need to practice acceptance, " Marcus says (7.3). "Without disdain." Do the entries in the Meditations show him doing that?
6. At several points Marcus expresses disapproval of the Epicureans for making pleasure their highest goal. Why does he find this attitude so objectionable?
7. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold faulted the Meditations for a lack of joy. The translator's introduction agrees, and suggests that Marcus's pessimistic evaluation of human life is "impoverishing." Is this a fair criticism?
8. Marcus often describes the world as being in a process of constant change, yet he sees an underlying unity and direction in theway it works. Are these two conceptions compatible? Do modern theories about the nature of the universe make Marcus's outlook more appealing than it might have seemed a century ago?
9. Does the Stoics' emphasis on accepting all that happens to us as natural prevent them from trying to change the world in positive ways? Would a Stoic have participated in the civil rights movement, for example?
10. Marcus asserts (4.8) that only what harms our character can harm us. Is this true?
11. In urging himself not to fear death, Marcus makes use of several arguments found in other ancient thinkers: that others have faced extinction with courage, that death is a natural process, that non-existence did not harm us before our birth and can't harm us after it, that death is unavoidable in any case. Are these arguments intellectually convincing? Do you find them emotionally persuasive?
12. What is the significance of the anecdote about the Spartans at 11.24?
13. Like many Romans, Marcus finds it helpful to use certain historical figures (e. g. Alexander the Great, Socrates, Nero) as touchstones of human virtue or vice. What historical figures serve a similar function for us? Is this practice useful or potentially misleading?
14. Would the Stoics' respect for nature translate into an endorsement of modern-day environmentalism?
15. Marcus's two sketches of his predecessor Antoninus Pius (1.16; 6.30) might be regarded as a kind of "mirror for princes, " i. e. a portrait of the ideal ruler. Are the characteristics Marcus singles out the ones we look for in modern-day leaders? What other characteristics might he have added?
16. If you were to compile a catalogue of "debts and lessons" like the first book of the Meditations, who would appear in it?
17. Marcus advises himself at one point "to stop talking about what the good man is like and just be one" (10.16). Is it possible to be good without self-reflection? Are self-reflective people always the best?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After reading this book I felt very inquisitive. A lot of the topics discussed by Marcus were topics in which we do not discuss often in philosophy. I had to do some outside research on topics such as "logos" and "stoicism". Overall, this was one of the most fascinating readings I have picked up in a long time. It was thrilling to read the writings of Marcus and to get an inside feel towards his life and philosophies regarding life. I honestly would recommend this book to any student of philosophy, who is looking to gain an intricate perspective regarding early philosophy. The only caution I would address in this book is the fact that Marcus Aurelius appears a little on the dark side of things. While reading his meditations you will find that he, at time, was slightly sinister in his thought; however, I do believe that he never thought they would get published. I am under the impression he believed his meditations would be personal, and for his eyes alone to read. Overall, this is a tremendous read, and I highly recommend it.
As a conservative politician with a deep respect for the republic, religion and the call of duty above self this remarkable thin book has been a great inspiration. The book was writen by Marcus, one the best emperors Rome knew, about 1,800 years ago The true begining of the book is 'Book II': ' ...I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men.' are the opening line. Marcus hits you hard with just how difficult it is to rule in a just manner. How does one get up each morning and look into the unfathomable chaos that wants to be and attempt to make 'good and right' of it? This is the goal of this great man. How should we live in order to accomplish this? How should we behave? How to we look upon and deal with those that attempt to bring this chaos? This book is excellent reading for anyone who has an interest in political leadership and I don't mean the 90% of elected officials that are in it for personal gain or vanity. This book is also excellent reading for anyone who has an interest in supporting a political leader because by reading this book you will learn to recognize what true leadership is and the way in which a true leader behaves. This is a wonderful thin little book that you will reflect on for a long, long time.
This was an excellent insight into the mind of a thoughtful Roman emperor in the age just after Christ. It appears he was not influenced much by Christianity, yet many of his Stoic observations are secularly parallel to Christian theology. This book was an unpretentious collection of philosophical observations that remind me of just how similar mankind's thought, hopes, concerns, etc. remain down the Ages.
This is a great book from way back that is filled with wisdom and suggestions on how to live right and harmoniously. I would reccomend this to book everyone.
The content is timeless and anyone interested in leading a meaningful life should read it. Unfortunately the formatting from MobileReference stinks; not any better than the free versions available, and was sometimes very difficult to read. This was disappointing since I have purchased other classic ebooks done by them which were fine. Content ***** Formatting *
This is a good book to read and understand the position and thought of ancient philosopher, specially, The emperor and head of the state. It is good start to become familiar with one of the oldest class of thinking "Stoicism" But is much better to read the life of emperor Marcus Aurelius first to know him and his position at the time.
I've often wondered why we, as a society, focus so much on the views of the powerful and the wealthy. Surely there are millions of men and women who have sided toward a philosophy weighted with moral integrity . I decided that the wealthy and the powerful must overcome temptations that the average man or woman would never dream of. The antics of today's Hollywood stars should suffice to demonstrate that fame, wealth and power can saturate men and women in false senses of superiority. And money and power must provide access to a large variety of creative sins. Despite these realities, Marcus Aurelius, in the years 121-180 A.D., explores a very healthy mindset and provides some guidelines that are every bit as applicable today, some 1940 years later, as they were in the midst of the Roman Empire.
(review of Gregory Hays translation, 2003 Modern Library edition)The Meditations are, as presented by Hays in his very helpful introduction, best understood as the private spiritual exercises of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Hays' introduction lays out the various philosophic strains that shaped Marcus Aurelius' thinking, and fits the work into the broader cultural context of late Roman attitudes towards life, philosophy, and religion. The translation is fluid and incisive, making the thoughts come alive.The Mediations will reward periodic rereading. The author spirals obsessively around a handful of philosophical themes: that everything we know, love, or hate is transient and will pass away; that freedom comes from accepting that most of the world - everything other than one's own choices about how to behave -- ultimately lies beyond one's control; that virtue is rooted in self-discipline. For most of us, there's a lot more to life than this, but as he works and reworks his themes, Marcus Aurelius reveals new angles or insights that give the Meditations a rich depth. Throughout, I kept wondering, with his focus on transience, self-discipline, and compassion towards others, what Marcus Aurelius would have made of Buddhism.Underlying its wisdom, the Meditations carries two striking internal tensions. The first may simply reflect the gap between the author's intent - personal spiritual exercises -- and the book's acquired status as a work for the ages. Marcus Aurelius constantly suggests that anyone in his audience can follow his advice and be free. On the other hand, the author's position -- a patriarch among patriarchs -- is hardly universal. Only for a person with great privilege could the problem of suffering look so manageable through simple willpower. This tension subsides if Marcus Aurelius really wrote for himself alone.The other major tension doesn't depend on the intended audience: Marcus Aurelius repeatedly orders the reader both to live in the present, and to be strategic - which necessarily implies thinking several steps ahead. That contradiction isn't unique to the Meditations; it's a challenge for all philosophic or religious systems that affirm transcendent values while also encouraging followers to engage and shape the world. While the tension is not resolved (can it ever be?), it gives the Meditations a realistic, pragmatic feel.
Hodge podge of truisms by a world leader obviously convinced of his own moral superiority. Is there wisdom in here? Sure, but it is wisdom any intelligent, remotely self reflective, person will already possess.
This book was originally Marcus Aurelius's journal of philosophical notes to himself, and it definitely shows. Marcus was obviously a talented writer, and parts of it are very interesting, but he makes his points in a more or less random order, and it tends to get really repetitive. The repetition was probably great for Marcus, because it shows which ideas he really felt the need to constantly remind himself of, but on the other hand it's not that helpful for the rest of us.
The end of the Roman culture was marked by spiritual decay. This book reveals the anatomy of parched empire. A necessary but painful read.
Most religions in the eras of the Greeks and Romans offered less in the way of moral guidelines than they offered in bad examples. The gods were worse than human. Morality and values were left to the exploration and exposition of philosophers. The dominant philosophy in Rome prior to Christianity was stoicism, inherited from the Greeks and practiced thoroughly by Marcus Aurelius, the "last good emperor", who had a bit role early in the movie "The Gladiator." These meditations were written by him, largely while in his headquarters in military campaigns, and were reportedly U.S. Grant's favorite reading in his tent during the Civil War. The state of philosophy and values were remarkably refined before the advent of Christianity and devoid of the politics and conflicts that came with the Judeo/Christian religion. Marcus Aurelius does an admirable job of advocating the values that guided his life. An eye-opening exposure to realms of thought not normally found when one explores the origins of modern religion.
Still pertinent in these days.
Words of wisdom that still ring true. ~*~LEB~*~
After having read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, I was compelled to dive into stoicism and see what all the fuss was about. I looked into Holiday's The Daily Stoic website and was recommended this book as a starting point. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Can't wait to check out the works of Seneca and Epictetus!
A great read to mull over
Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!
Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!
I have the paperback version and really wanted one on my nook, which can also be read on my iPad through the nook app. I need the Martin Hammond translation as that is what we are using in class. Though the paperback is that of Martin Hammond, the nook book version is not. I wish I was informed of this before I purchased it, the cover is completely different in my nook library because it is a different book. If I would have paid more than $.95 I would be much more upset, but I do not appreciate false advertising. I know this is most likely a technical issue, but it needs to be fixed. I usually spend at least $10 on school-related nook books (not textbooks). It makes me want to switch to the kindle, where I can pay with my checking account and am not limited to credit cards.
I pick up this book and reread selections whenever I'm feeling depressed. Time and time again the book reminds you that life is fleeting, but Aurelius' approach to this truth is different than our modern "so make the most of it" attitude. Instead, he focuses on the fact is itself, on the insignificance of life, so as to make a person with context. You'll have to read the book to understand what I mean.