Meditations | Marcus Aurelius

When Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations came out in 2002, it was a bit of a landmark event in the classics world. There had not been a new translation of Meditations since 1969.

When I started researching for this post, there was love and admiration for the translations by Richard Graves (1792), George Long (1862), C. R. Haines (1916), A. S. L. Farquharson (1944), Maxwell Staniforth (1969) as well as for the four newer editions published since Hays’, but consistently, repeatedly, overwhelmingly, the rave reviews were all for Hays’ translation.

Most people appreciated his emphasis on ‘immediacy’ as well as his approach that viewed these notes left by Marcus Aurelius as personal jottings and reminders to self, rather than profound doctrines.

For anyone approaching Meditations for the first, it is a good point to note. If you go in expecting a coherent, structured narrative you will be disappointed. If you expect to find a philosophical treatise on Stoicism you will also be disappointed. Meditations really is a collection of working notes made by a busy, powerful man on the go.

I attempted to read Staniforth’s translation in my early 30’s. We didn’t gel. I found it pompous and ponderous and disappointing. In my thirties I was still searching for some kind of enlightenment or template for how to live a good and happy life. Staniforth’s translation of Meditations did not do it for me. Now, in my 50’s, I’m in less need of external sources of happiness and I’ve realised that the more you search for happiness, the less you’re likely to find it. This is what I also see in Hays’ translation – another human being trying to be a good person, finding ways to be happy but approaching life as realistically, pragmatically and hopefully as one can.

Marcus is not a font of wisdom or a source of happiness. He is just another man, trying to do the best he can. That’s where his inspiration lies – in his humanity.

Hays’ edition provides a fascinating Introduction that fills in the details about Marcus’ life and times.

  • Born 26 April 121 A.D. Marcus Annius Verus. His father dies when he was young and he was brought up by his grandfather (a consul of Rome).

Wikipedia spends ages on his name, as there is some debate. He may have been called Marcus Annius Catilius Severus or even Marcus Annius Catilius Severus. He may have been called something different by his father, and then again by his grandfather, after his father’s death. Certainly by the time he was adopted by Antoninus to be his heir to the throne, t the age of 17, he became known as Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar. When he took the throne in 161 A. D. he was called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus until his death.

  • He shared the throne with his younger adopted brother, Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus, the first time two emperors ruled Rome together.

Mr Books tell me that the movie, Gladiator (2000) basically begins with Marcus’ death thanks to the machinations of his son. An historic event with ‘unknown causes’ certainly left the scriptwriters plenty of latitude to make of Marcus’ death what you will. The historic record indicates that Marcus was disappointed with his son, Commodus. Cassius Dio said, “Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him.” Although it is more probable that Marcus died of the plague.

  • Marcus did not consider himself to be a philosopher, even though he has been tagged as one ever since.

His early years of rule were marred by a terrible plague – the Antonine Plague or the Plague of Galen (165 -180). It was the first known pandemic to impact the Roman Empire. Galen, the physician who described it at the time, said the symptoms included ‘fever, diarrhoea, and inflammation of the pharynx, along with dry or pustular eruptions of the skin after nine days’. Historians believe it was a smallpox plague brought back to Rome by soldiers fighting in the Near East. It may have also been the cause of Lucius’ death in 169. The death count was estimated to be 10% of the population of the empire, with cities being the deadliest place to be.

  • Marcus most likely began writing his meditations around 170. Lucius was now dead, as was Marcus’ wife. There was constant fighting on the edges of the empire, the ravages of the plague and his concerns about his son, Commodus. Hays tells us that it was only natural, with all this going on, that Marcus would turn to philosophy for consolation.
  • Philosophy at the time was the place that people turned to for discussions on ethical and moral issues. It was a practical, every day discipline, not like the academic discipline it is seen as now. Philosophy was considered to be ‘set rules to live one’s life by‘ or ‘an attitude to life.’
  • Marcus was schooled in the Stoic tradition that believed that the ‘world is organised in a rational and coherent way…[and]...controlled and directed by an all-pervading force‘ that they called logos. Logos works at an individual and universal level. Stoics believe that human beings are responsible for their own choices and actions. They are broadly deterministic but still believe that free will is a ‘voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable‘. This is where I part company with the Stoics.
  • Hays firmly believes that Marcus did not write these notes for publication. He did not view his writing as an ‘organic whole‘ or expect anyone else to read them. The entries are for Marcus’ own use, ‘as a means of practicing and reinforcing his own philosophical convictions.

The book has been divided by the various translators into twelve sections.

Marcus’ main themes centre around being a good man, our place in the natural order of the universe, avoiding indulgences and to focus on only those things within your control.

The quotes that follow give you an example of Marcus’ personal philosophy as well as the naturalness of Hays’ translations.

Why are we here?

  • Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? 5.1
  • To do (and not do) what we were designed for. 6.16
  • The main thing we were made for is to work for others. 7.55
  • To be of use to others is natural. 7.74
  • Everything’s destiny is to change, be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born. 12.21

How should we live our lives?

  • To read attentively – not to be satisfied with ‘just getting the gist of it’ 1.7
  • To care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. 3.4
  • How many unkind people have you been kind to? 5.31
  • Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. 5.33
  • It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. 6.21
  • Practice acceptance. 7.3
  • Nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite. 8.1
  • To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one. 10.16
  • It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being. 11.18

How can we ensure that we do what is right?

  • You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. 3.4
  • Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors. 3.7
  • Pride is a master of deception: when you think you are occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell. 6.13
  • It’s silly to try and escape other people’s fault. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own. 7.71
  • To do only what is right, say only what is true, without holding back. What else could it be but to live life fully – to pay out goodness like the rings of a chain, without the slightest gap. 12.29

How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life?

  • Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. 2.5
  • Don’t be irritated at people’s smells or bad breath. What’s the point? 5.28
  • Avoid all selfishness and illogic. 6.14
  • Give yourself a gift: the present moment. 8.44

How should we deal with pain and misfortune?

  • The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.4.3
  • It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. 4.8
  • To get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked upon. 5.9
  • Don’t be ashamed to need help. 7.7
  • Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination. 7.64
  • Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure. 10.18

How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist?

  • Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it. Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small. 3.10
  • Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone–those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us–a chasm whose depths we cannot see. 5.23
  • Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. 6.2
  • Alexander the Great and his mule driver both dies and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms. 6.24
  • Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly. 7.56
  • What dies doesn’t vanish. It stays here in the world, transformed, dissolved, as parts of the world, and of you. 8.18
  • This is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us. 9.3
  • Make your exit with grace. 12.36

President Bill Clinton has claimed Meditations as his favourite book. I wouldn’t go that far.

It’s certainly helpful to be reminded of the importance of rationality and kindness in all our lives and that change and impermanence are the natural order of things. But ultimately, I found Hays’ Introduction far more interesting and informative than Marcus’ meditations. I guess the history buff side of me is stronger than the philosophical side.

Addendum:

In the comments below, N@ncy mentioned that 8.44 spoke to her. It was also one of the quotes that particularly appealed to me. So I started doing a translation comparison, cause that’s what I do! Lisa then helped out with the full quote from the Staniforth translation.

  • Meric Casaubon (1694): ‘This time that is now present, bestow thou upon thyself.’
  • Jeremy Collier (1702): ‘Make the best of your Time while you have it.’
  • James Thomson (1747): ‘Take care to live to thyself, and to reap the Fruits of Life, while the Season of Life continues.’
  • R. Graves (1792): ‘Employ the present time to your own satisfaction.’
  • George Long (1862): ‘See that thou secure this present time to thyself’
  • G. H. Rendall (1901): ‘Harvest the present’
  • C. R. Haines (1916): ‘See thou dower thyself with this present time.’
  • A. S. L. Farquharson (1944): ‘See that you bestow this present time upon yourself.’
  • Staniforth (1969): ‘Make the best of today.’ (see Lisa’s comments below for the full quote from 8.44)
  • Gregory Hays (2002): ‘Give yourself a gift: the present moment.’
  • Martin Hammond (2006): ‘Look, make yourself a gift of this present time.’ (Sue has included the full quote below)
  • Robin Hard (2011): ‘See that you award this present time to yourself.’
Title: Meditations
Author: Marcus Aurelius
Translator: Gregory Hays
ISBN: 9780812968255
Imprint: Random House US Group
Published: 15 May 2003 (originally published 2002)
Format: Paperback

27 thoughts on “Meditations | Marcus Aurelius

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Brona.
    I discovered Marcus Aurelius at uni when I was studying Classics, and I loved it. At times of great stress in my life, it’s been a bedside book for quiet reading, much like many people would read the Bible for consolation.
    This translation sounds interesting, but I’m not yet ready to part with what I have which is the Staniforth translation (Penguin edition).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was interesting reading about the number of politicians & high profile people who credit Meditations as their favourite book, using it much the same way as you do. With all his talk about impermanence, he might be surprised, & certainly humbled, that his words are providing inspiration 2000 years later.

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      1. LOL I’m in exalted company!
        But seriously, his wisdom certainly got me through some stressful times at work, though I reckon I would have got a ribbing if I’d told anyone there about what was keeping me sane,

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        1. Ha I’m sure we all have our secret consolations that keep us sane that would surprise others! I had a purple stone that I carried for years. Just holding it in my pocket calmed me during some stressful parent-teacher conferences.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Here it is, worth quoting in full, I think, because it gives his reasoning: Make the best of today. Those who aim instead at tomorrow’s plaudits fail to remember that future generations will be nowise different from the contemporaries who so try their patience now, and nowise less mortal. In any case, can it matter to you how the tongues of posterity may wag, or what view of yourself it may entertain. (pp130-1, Penguin Classics, 1982)

            Liked by 1 person

  2. “Give yourself a gift: the present moment. 8.44″…oh, I like that one.
    I say to myself; “Turn off Twitter, Facebook….open a book that will enrich your life!”
    #AusReadingMonth 2021 here I come…!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been comparing translations of this particular line. George Long wrote ‘See that thou secure this present time to thyself’
      Robin Hard ‘See that you award this present time to yourself.’

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  3. Funny…I wouldn’t ever think to read this book. It’s a classic I’ve seen referenced many times and on occasion I see someone post about it, but somehow it’s just never been on my classics-to-read-inner-list. Don’t know how that list gets made, but I’m sure there are other (many other!) worthy candidates, like this one, I’ve overlooked. As such, I really appreciated your summary, which suggests I’d find a lot to think about here…or, I could reread your post!

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    1. One of the joys of my work are the unexpected books that come my way. Books I might not have read if I’d had to seek them out myself. This was one. And it led me down a rabbit hole of translation comparison.

      If I’d had time I would have found a few comparison examples….

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  4. Lovely post. I read the Hays translation around when it came out–I even forked over & bought it in hardback!–and I remember it as pretty great, especially when compared to whatever I’d read of it before. Makes me want to reread it…Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see how people like Bill Clinton & Lisa use this as a book to dip in and out of during times of stress or chaos fir consolation. Marcus is a very calm, considerate, compassionate man.
      It has been lovely spending time in his company.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love Hays’ translation the most, and yes, I didn’t quite gel with the older version either. Hays just makes it much more accessible, and I’ve learned so much from Marcus Aurelius as a result. Great post!

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    1. Thanks Stuart.
      Marcus was very much for living in the present moment and being a good person now. But I’m sure he would be thrilled to know that his words still resonate 2000 years later!

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    1. Translation differences are something I can get obsessed by very easily Katie! I find it fascinating the decision and choices every translator has to make and certainly in this case, it can almost be like reading an entirely different book!

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  6. I was given this book for Christmas last year and enjoyed it very much! Mine is a different version to all those listed above – it is a Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond, published in 2006, and is very readable.
    8.44 goes like this: Look, make yourself a gift of this present time. Those who are more inclined to pursue fame hereafter fail to reckon that the next generation will have people just like those they dislike now: and they too will die. What, anyway, is it to you if this is the echo in future voices and this the judgement they make of you?

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