Skip to content

Honors Project Prep: Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

June 6, 2014

I’m a little surprised and disappointed that I haven’t read more political philosophy to prepare for this project.  I have read some: Locke and Hobbes for that one course I was grading, and Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy for a final paper, but beyond that there’s not much.  So I thought I would rectify that by checking out a book by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (translated by Gregory Hays).

The keyword there is “thought”.  While Marcus Aurelius was indeed in politics and Meditations does indeed contain philosophy, it is not a work of political philosophy.  In fact, it’s a bit of stretch to call it a “work”.  Marcus did not intend for Meditations to be published, nor would he consider it a cohesive piece of philosophy.  Instead, Meditations reads as a series of “notes-to-self” on how to live, on how to deal with living.

At first I was a bit let down that Marcus was not sharing his wisdom on how to govern an empire.  While such thoughts on running an empire would appear to have little value in writing about modern democracies, the contrast might make for interesting material.  And Marcus’ thoughts on how subjects tend to behave might not be that different from how voters or citizens behave nowadays.

However, as I progressed further through the work (and reading it aloud and deliberately definitely helped), I became captivated by what Marcus was saying.  Here were the innermost private thoughts of the most powerful individual in Rome.  Marcus talks about feeling pained, the difficulty of waking up in the morning, his own perceived inadequacies.  And death, the looming specter of death.  He keeps telling himself to follow the Stoic philosophy, and yet it’s clear from his writings that it’s easier said than done.

At times, I was amazed at how self-effacing Marcus gets.  These little thoughts are more than suggestions to himself; they often come laden with self-directed insults.  Take, for example, this bit from Book 5.  It starts like so:

No one could ever accuse you of being quick-witted.

Marcus as a reputation as the philosopher-king, and yet here he is, pretty much saying, “Y’know, I’m kind of an idiot.”  And it doesn’t stop there:

…is it some inborn condition that makes you whiny and grasping and obsequious, makes you complain about your body and curry favor and show off and leaves you so turbulent inside? (5.5)

I mean, we expect our political figures to be resolute and strong and self-assured.  Can you imagine if Barack Obama gave a television address and said, “My fellow citizens, I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.  And my knee really hurts and my hair is coming out in clumps and…”  I can’t even imagine the public reaction, it’d be so far out of the ordinary.

But it’s human to have those thoughts, and last I checked “being human” was a prerequisite for holding public office*.  It’s too easy to strip public officials of their humanity when we think of them.  It’s too easy to deify them, or to reduce them to caricature.  Yet every one, I’m sure, even the most grandstand-y of the Tea Party set, turns in their sleep over their most recent vote on foreign policy or what have you.

So thank you, Marcus Aurelius, for revealing yourself to the wider world.  And I’m sorry that someone decided to publish your notepad.

*However, “being human” is not a requirement for TIME Person of the Year, so what do I know?


From → Uncategorized

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: