How to remain humble like a Roman Emperor

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In the Piazza Colonna in Rome, the Marcus Aurelius column juts proudly well over 100 feet into the air. Etched in relief and spiraling up the monument are scenes of the famous emperor’s military successes over various German tribes in A.D. 176. Not surprisingly, the scenes vacillate between the brutal and the bombastic. Prisoners are decapitated. Women are taken. Whole villages are razed. Miracles — flash floods and fortuitous lightning strikes — save the Legions from imminent destruction at tattooed barbarian hands.

Meditations: The Annotated Edition, by Marcus Aurelius, ed. Robin Waterfield. Basic Books, 384 pp., $28.

The Aurelian column stands in perfect contrast to that quieter achievement by which we remember the emperor today: his Meditations. Written sometime between A.D. 160 and 180 while encamped in what’s now Serbia and Hungary, the thoughts and philosophical reflections recorded in Aurelius’s private journals were never intended for publication. Rather, they were written by the emperor to track his individual moral progress and reorient his mind toward the lofty ethical goals of a practicing Stoic. Comparing the book to such intensely personal and moral works as Blaise Pascal’s Pensees and Soren Kierkegaard’s journals, translator Robin Waterfield tells us in the introduction to Meditations: The Annotated Edition that “the book is about the divine order of the world and the part in it that human beings should play, but particularly Marcus’s own role … He is not telling anyone else what to do or how to live, nor is he writing a philosophical textbook.”

Meditations, in other words, isn’t really concerned with communication. Which is a bit ironic, considering that the text itself was preserved underground for hundreds of years, copies passing from hand to hand in a sort of informal lending library of anonymous fans, before it was first referenced by other texts sometime in the 10th century. It’s rare that a book lives so long outside the ecosystem of other books, but the fact that this one did is a testament to its deeply personal and profoundly accessible nature. It’s one of those books that seems to resist its own literary nature, imploring us to read only as long as necessary before getting down to the real work of living in moral harmony with the universe. This energy animates many of the How to CEO Like an Emperor and Stoicism for Bodybuilders type self-help books that preserve Marcus Aurelius’s memory in the popular imagination.

Which all leads to the question: Why do we need yet another translation of Meditations? In introducing the book, Waterfield humbly suggests that because the Greek in which Aurelius wrote is so subtle, the text remains fertile ground for further translations with different shadings of interpretation. New surprises are hiding in the loamy language, waiting for harvest. But what Waterfield doesn’t say, and which I think is just as important, is that an annotated text pushes back against the misperception that Meditations is at heart a simple self-help manual. Something about the plain language of the book appeals to the most idiotic American conceptions of the self-made man. The unadorned thoughts suggest that anyone, anywhere, can just flex their mind like a muscle and will knowledge of good and evil out of thin air. What we learn from Waterfield’s multitude of footnotes (and there are many, almost too many) is that these thoughts are all part of a complex philosophical system, already ancient when the emperor practiced it, with fully fleshed-out conceptions of the universe and how it functions. Aurelius is able to assume so much about the world because his thoughts are so deeply embedded within a tradition. It’s this often silent context that Waterfield is able to bring to bear on his translation.

The major themes of Meditations are fairly orthodox Stoic ideas. Condition the will like a muscle. Don’t flatter yourself or allow yourself to be flattered. Quietly worship the divine while humbly doing your duty on Earth. Ignorance is the root of evil, etc. Aurelius constantly reminds himself to keep a cosmic perspective, a bird’s eye view of his own life, that nothing matters except being a moral person. As he writes in Book V:

Before long, either ashes or a skeleton, and either just a name or not even that — and what’s a name but noise and a fading echo? The things that are valued in life are vain, rotten, and trivial: puppies bite one another; children squabble, laugh, and then cry a moment later. Fidelity, modestly, justice, honesty — ‘gone to Olympus from the wide-pathed Earth.’ … As for anything that falls outside the compass of your lump of flesh and your bit of spirit, remember that it’s nothing to do with you and isn’t subject to your will.

Without Waterfield’s footnotes, we might not learn that the “wide-pathed Earth” bit is a quote from Hesiod’s Works and Days, “an apt quote,” Waterfield tells us, “since Hesiod was talking about the disappearance from earth of qualities similar to those listed by Marcus.”

Or take the practical advice on enduring pain from Book VII, Section 64:

Whenever you’re in pain, have this thought readily available: it isn’t a shameful thing, nor does it impair the mind that holds the helm. Pain has no deleterious effect on the mind qua rational, nor qua concerned for the common good. As far as most instances of pain are concerned, there’s a useful saying of Epicurus: "Pain is either not unendurable or not everlasting" — as long as you remember that it has limits and as long as you don’t judge it further.

In the footnotes to this section, Waterfield gives us the location of the Epicurus quote, points us to a paraphrase of the same quote earlier in the book, emphasizes the Stoic directive not to judge suffering as either good or bad (both lie outside of suffering, in the spirit and actions of the human individual), and reiterates that succumbing to either pain or pleasure was seen by the Stoics as a failure of the will. The annotations fully flesh out the intentions and world view of Aurelius, of course. But they work on a deeper level, too. By drawing connections to other ancient texts, as well as more contemporary writers such as Juliana of Norwich and Kurt Vonnegut, Meditations: The Annotated Edition liberates the book back into the wilds of literature itself. It transforms it from a sort of anti-book into a work deeply embedded in the cross-referentiality of art.

With that said, it’s still important to remember that this is a work of literature that implores us to act. In Book X, Section 16, Aurelius writes, “No more abstract discussion about what a good man is like: just be one!” Which returns us to the giant column in the Piazza Colonna. You come away from reading Meditations: The Annotated Edition with the sense that the column was just the sort of thing the philosophical emperor would have disdained. Flattery and adulation. Cartoonish veneration of power and luck. What might a more appropriate monument to the values of Aurelius be? A couple thousand years after the erection of the Aurelian column, Navy pilot and student of Stoicism James Bond Stockdale was being regularly tortured in a Hanoi POW camp. In the process of taking a final stand against the torture of his fellow prisoners, he nearly died in a rather theatrical suicide attempt. “After a couple of months in a tiny isolated cell we called Calcutta to let my arms heal,” Stockdale writes in Courage Under Fire, “they blindfolded me and walked me right into the … cell block. The isolation and special surveillance were over.” The more brutal forms of torture, too. For everyone. After Stockdale’s return to the block, a fellow prisoner slipped him a note written with a rat turd on a piece of toilet paper. It was the last verse of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:

It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Stockdale’s bravery, inspired in large part by his study of Stoicism, and the response of his fellow prisoner, are more appropriate memorials to Marcus Aurelius than a column of marble photographed by tourists in a sunny Roman plaza.

Scott Beauchamp is an editor for Landmarks, the journal of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. His most recent book is Did You Kill Anyone?

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Tags: Books, Book Reviews, History, Philosophy, Ancient Greece, Roman Empire

Original Author: Scott Beauchamp

Original Location: How to remain humble like a Roman Emperor

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