Time to tackle Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, arguably the most read Stoic classic of them all. As is well known, it was written as a personal diary by the Roman emperor, and hence not meant for publication. This accounts for the odd structure, as well as the (apparently, but not really, since he was talking to himself) “preachy” style. I read it years ago, but given my novel interest in Stoicism, I figured I should start it again from scratch, taking notes of what I find particularly interesting. This post will deal only with Book I. Hopefully I will be able to write a short entry for each of the 12 books.
Speaking of unusual style, the first book of the Meditations is essentially a list of people Marcus is grateful to, each accompanied by an explanation of what he is grateful to them for. It is, of course, an instructive list.
It begins with his grandfather, whom he credits for teaching him about good morals and government of temper, and his father, for modesty and “manly” character. (Note: it is useless, when reading ancient authors, to go politically correct and start pointing out things like their male chauvinism. Yes, these were people who lived in a very different society two millennia ago, deal with it. I’m sure Marcus or Epictetus would be the first ones to update their language if they were alive today. And if not, we can mentally update it for them without loss of original insight.)
Next comes his mother, credited for his abstinence from evil deeds and even thoughts, as well as for the practice of a simple life style.
A few sections later Marcus thanks Rusticus for a number of things, including introducing him to the works of Epictetus, and for treating with tolerance those who offend him by way of words or deeds. From Sextus, he learned tolerance of ignorant people and, basically, anger management, while Alexander taught him not to find fault in others. Notice how all of these have to do with the Stoic discipline of action, or “philanthropy,” the idea that a great part of human life is to get along with, and be helpful to, other human beings.
Marcus devotes quite a bit of space to his adoptive father, the emperor Antoninus Pius. Among other things, because he demonstrated a readiness to listen to those who might have good suggestions, took care of his body without vanity but just so that he could keep doing what he thought was needed (i.e., sound mind in a sound body), which he did without regard for what other people thought of him.
Finally, Marcus thanked the gods (or fate) for having given him plenty of good things in his life, including good parents, good teachers, and good friends.
The overall impression one gets from Book I is of a humble man, despite his very powerful position, one who is ready to learn and earnestly tries to do his best in life to improve himself and help others. Perhaps not the ideal Sage, but not at all a bad role model, if you ask me.