First, a bit of introduction to Penguin Books’ ‘Great Ideas’ series. Penguin selected twelve writers whose works span the ages of Western civilisation (from Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger to English journalist George Orwell), and printed special editions of each author’s best known work or a representative sample of the same. I’ve picked up a few of them, and here are my thoughts on one of the first volumes in the series.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
From around 160 to 180 CE, Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time engaged in military campaigns and skirmishes against various people on the edges of the Roman empire. While on these campaigns, he began to write down his thoughts on ways in which he could improve his life and his way of thinking. His Meditations are regarded as classic examples of Stoic philosophy and spirituality, with a focus on moderation and self-reliance. In modern times, the word ‘stoic’ has taken on a somewhat negative quality — to be ‘stoic’ is to be dour and joyless and fatalistic, possessed of a stiff upper-lip and a squared jaw and an immobile brow. But the Meditations present a far more agreeable face of Stoic philosophy, emphasising balance and inner peace and common sense…and a rather refreshing belief in the power of human reason.
It’s true that the Mediations repeat the same general ideas many times over, slightly reworded each time. Yet these reflections compiled over the course of many years, and each different way of looking at an idea is a reflection of Marcus Aurelius’s thoughts at the time. It makes more sense to read a few pages at a time, or a few thoughts at a time, and come back later and read a little more. The Meditations are a fine introduction to Stoic philosophy and to the works of one of the most enduring philosophers of Roman times, and in a slim and compact volume they’re nice and portable, perfect for picking up when you have a few moments to spare — much in the same way as Marcus Aurelius wrote them down.