Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 4)

Marcus Aurelius was the thinking man’s emperor. He had to spend most of his time governing Rome and later on shoring up the Roman military defenses out in its far flung provinces. He was good at it too. But there’s little doubt he would have preferred being president of a university. It would have been even better if he had been head of a small department of philosophy somewhere. That would have given him time to do what he loved best – think about things. His writings have been labeled Meditations but that term can be misleading if taken in the wrong sense. Marcus wasn’t sitting around calming his mind by intense concentration. He was thinking about the things of this world and he was thinking about them deeply. His advice was for men to “seek retreats for themselves.” Not a retreat out into the country or the mountains or the seashore. He was advocating a retreat into the quiet places of our own minds. There we would find the tranquility and calm that escapes us in the hectic pace of day to day living. And of all the people who ever lived very few could have a more hectic schedule than Marcus Aurelius.

It’s not surprising then that the Stoic philosophy appeals to Marcus. It’s a philosophy that puts a heavy emphasis on right thinking but also emphasizes right action. In the Stoic view thinking and doing are interconnected and influence one another. We think about things deeply so we can go out and act rightly in the world. We observe the actions of men and then ponder them in the quiet of our own minds so we can make sense of them. That’s what gives depth to many of the speculations and maxims found in the Meditations. This isn’t contemplation on some cosmic plane inaccessible to ordinary human beings. It’s a very practical and accessible philosophy that people of any age can use to improve their lives. In that sense it’s one of the first self-help books ever published.

But to label the Meditations as a self-help book is to do it a grave disservice. Even though it’s written in a plain style and gets right to the point it is also highly philosophical in the best sense of the word. If philosophy means the love of wisdom then surely this is a book of philosophy in the best sense of the word. For example, Marcus claims that since we’re all rational creatures then all men are essentially brothers. Are all men really our brothers? This is a very deep spiritual question as well as a profound philosophical problem. The way we answer that question makes a big difference in how we live. Do we belong to a world community, or not? Should there be a death penalty? How much wealth should I acquire? How much should I share with others? These questions take on a whole new perspective if all men are my brothers. If we’re all in this together then I can’t function properly without feeling intense concern for all my brothers and sisters throughout the world.

This doesn’t mean that Marcus Aurelius would approve of any modern New Age philosophy. He doesn’t see any signs of an Age of Aquarius dawning. Not in this world. Consider a couple of hard-headed assessments taken from Book 4 of the Meditations: “…all things take place by change, and accustom yourself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change the things that are and to make new things like them.” Like being young and alive so you can get back to nature? Too bad. Someday, and not too long either, you’ll be old and tired and will rather be sitting in your rocking chair than being out in the woods with bugs and snakes. There’s a whole new generation growing up right behind you. Soon it will be time for you to move out of this life to make room for them. Resign yourself to it. Be strong. “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” This is not a New Age philosophy of life.


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