Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, distills the wisdom of great thinkers before him into a volume that has stood the test of time.
Written in Greek by an intellectual Roman emperor without any intention of publication, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius offer a wide range of fascinating spiritual reflections and exercises developed as the leader struggled to understand himself and make sense of the universe. Spanning from doubt and despair to conviction and exaltation, they cover such diverse topics as the question of virtue, human rationality, the nature of the gods and the values of leadership. But while the Meditations were composed to provide personal consolation, in developing his beliefs Marcus also created one of the greatest of all works of philosophy: a series of wise and practical aphorisms that have been consulted and admired by statesmen, thinkers and ordinary readers for almost two thousand years.
To provide a full understanding of Aurelius's seminal work, this edition includes explanatory notes, a general index, an index of quotations, an index of names, and an introduction by Diskin Clay putting the work in its biographical, historical, and literary context, a chronology of Marcus Aurelius's life and career.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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About the Author
Diskin Clay is Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at Duke University and has published widely in the area of Ancient Greek Philosophy.
Martin Hammond was Head Master of Tonbridge School and has translated many works of classic literature, including Homer's Iliad for Penguin Classics.
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Table of ContentsMeditationsBook One
What People are Saying About This
“The emperor Marcus Aurelius, the proverbial philosopher-king, produced in Greek a Roman manual of piety, the Meditations, whose impact has been felt for ages since. Here, for our age, is his great work presented in its entirety, strongly introduced and freshly, elegantly translated by Gregory Hays for the Modern Library.”
Reading Group Guide
1. The Meditations refers often to the need to act "unselfishly," yet much of its advice seems to center on seeking tranquillity within oneself and ignoring the outside world. Is this a contradiction? Do other people really matter to Marcus, or is his philosophical outlook fundamentally selfish?
2. What qualities does Marcus praise his relatives and teachers for in Book 1? Are they the same qualities he seeks to acquire in the remainder of the work?
3. Marcus ruled at a time when Christianity was beginning to become more prominent in the Roman world. What elements of Christianity would he have found sympathetic? What elements would have been incompatible with his outlook? Do aspects of Marcus's Stoicism find echoes in other religious traditions, for example in Buddhism?
4. Marcus several times uses the image of life as a play (e.g. 3.8, 11.1, 12.36). What specific similarities does he see? Is the image helpful in encapsulating his philosophy in other ways?
5. "We need to practice acceptance," Marcus says (7.3). "Without disdain." Do the entries in the Meditations show him doing that?
6. At several points Marcus expresses disapproval of the Epicureans for making pleasure their highest goal. Why does he find this attitude so objectionable?
7. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold faulted the Meditations for a lack of joy. The translator's introduction agrees, and suggests that Marcus's pessimistic evaluation of human life is "impoverishing." Is this a fair criticism?
8. Marcus often describes the world as being in a process of constant change, yet he sees an underlying unity and direction in the way it works. Are these two conceptions compatible? Do modern theories about the nature of the universe make Marcus's outlook more appealing than it might have seemed a century ago?
9. Does the Stoics' emphasis on accepting all that happens to us as natural prevent them from trying to change the world in positive ways? Would a Stoic have participated in the civil rights movement, for example?
10. Marcus asserts (4.8) that only what harms our character can harm us. Is this true?
11. In urging himself not to fear death, Marcus makes use of several arguments found in other ancient thinkers: that others have faced extinction with courage, that death is a natural process, that non-existence did not harm us before our birth and can't harm us after it, that death is unavoidable in any case. Are these arguments intellectually convincing? Do you find them emotionally persuasive?
12. What is the significance of the anecdote about the Spartans at 11.24?
13. Like many Romans, Marcus finds it helpful to use certain historical figures (e.g. Alexander the Great, Socrates, Nero) as touchstones of human virtue or vice. What historical figures serve a similar function for us? Is this practice useful or potentially misleading?
14. Would the Stoics' respect for nature translate into an endorsement of modern-day environmentalism?
15. Marcus's two sketches of his predecessor Antoninus Pius (1.16; 6.30) might be regarded as a kind of "mirror for princes," i.e. a portrait of the ideal ruler. Are the characteristics Marcus singles out the ones we look for in modern-day leaders? What other characteristics might he have added?
16. If you were to compile a catalogue of "debts and lessons" like the first book of the Meditations, who would appear in it?
17. Marcus advises himself at one point "to stop talking about what the good man is like and just be one" (10.16). Is it possible to be good without self-reflection? Are self-reflective people always the best?