Meditations Book 5.1
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style. In Gregory Hays’s new translation—the first in a generation—Marcus’s thoughts speak with a new immediacy: never before have they been so directly and powerfully presented.
One measure, perhaps, of a book’s worth, is its intergenerational pliancy: do new readers acquire it and interpret it afresh down through the ages? The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated and introduced by Gregory Hays, by that standard, is very worthwhile, indeed. Hays suggests that its most recent incarnation–as a self-help book–is not only valid, but may be close to the author’s intent. The book, which Hays calls, fondly, a “haphazard set of notes,” is indicative of the role of philosophy among the ancients in that it is “expected to provide a ‘design for living.’” And it does, both aphoristically (“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”) and rhetorically (“What is it in ourselves that we should prize?”). Whether these, and other entries (“Enough of this wretched, whining monkey life.”) sound life-changing or like entries in a teenager’s diary is up to the individual reader, as it should be. Hays’s introduction, which sketches the life of Marcus Aurelius (emperor of Rome A.D. 161-180) as well as the basic tenets of stoicism, is accessible and jaunty. —H. O’Billovich