I’m currently reading the book, “Meditations,” which contains the writings of Marcus Aurelius, translated from ancient Greek. Marcus was once the Emperor of Rome and a well-known philosopher. I truly wish I could recall who’d recommended the book to me so that I could thank them for their valuable advice. That individual specified the version translated by Gregory Hays. That said, I almost gave up reading Mr. Hays’ introduction of 50 pages, a tedious history of the era and of the philosophers of the time. Seemingly endless names, places, and influences sent my mind spinning.
I’m glad that I did persist. By the time I’d read through the fourth of Marcus’ twelve books, I was humbled by the profound wisdom shared within. I then understood the value of what I’d learned about his life and history via the introduction since it helped place the writings in context. Marcus wrote those pages as notations and narratives only to himself, for himself – observations he wanted to remember. Many of the shortest notations now make little sense to readers since the exact meanings were known only to him. The translator points out that Marcus never intended to publish any of his writings, and indeed never intended to have anyone else even read them.
As much as I gained from the introduction, I believe most of it was superfluous and might only be enjoyed by someone who’d studied the “classics” with a good grasp of the history of the Roman Empire and the notable Greek philosophers of the time. Twelve pages or fewer of the introduction would have sufficed for the rest of us.
My much shorter summary is that Marcus was born in 121 A.D. to a wealthy and distinguished Roman family. Little is known of his early years. He undoubtedly was schooled in Greek and Latin literature and philosophy, besides being well-trained for a political career. At sixteen years old, a few deaths involving assorted relatives thrust him more deeply into the study of philosophy. Later, he learned the ins and outs of navigating political office from his adoptive father, who died in 161, leaving Marcus as his successor and emperor. His rule continued until he died in 180 A.D. It is widely agreed that most of his writings occurred during that period, particularly in the last ten years of his life. I’ve left out many details, but I doubt they are necessary for most of us to understand his thoughts.
You may wonder why I’m giving this volume such a glowing report, having only read the first four books. Book one contains notations about family, friends, acquaintances, and short bits about what he’d learned from them. Books two, three, and four are filled with astonishing passages. As you read, it is readily apparent that he isn’t writing for anyone else. It gives a real insight into his thoughts and how, as emperor, he needed reminders ready to help him stay grounded in the same standards of behavior and thought he’d previously set for himself. As emperor, we can assume there were instances where he could have faced the temptation to disregard his previous moral and ethical standards for an easy way out of difficult circumstances.
I found a lot of wisdom within those pages, savoring each new discovery, and I’m not done reading. You may have thought I would impart nuggets of his writings within this article. Nay, I am inviting you to read it for yourself.