I was probably first introduced to Marcus Aurelius by Hannibal Lector:
So as the last book that I’ll get to during the break, I read the classic Meditations and finished it during the AAS conference.
I’m conflicted about this book. There were parts I enjoyed and found inspiring, but other parts I found confusing and repetitive.
The book presses a message of self-assurance and poise: “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” As someone who struggles with self-doubt, _Meditations_ provided potent language and powerful imagery to help tame my anxieties, and reading it was like standing in a cold, bracing wind.
At the same time, the book repeated the same ideas over and over again, often using very similar wording. If you come to this book expecting a cogent philosophical treatise, as I did initially, then this repetition is puzzling. As I read the book, though, I also did some background reading and discovered the book was written as a diary by Marcus Aurelius. In this case, it makes sense to me that he repeated the same admonitions – he was trying to instill them in his own mind.
There are lots of references to philosophers and ancient cities, which I also found confusing. Instead of buying this bare bones edition of _Meditations_, it might help to have an annotated version that can provide historical context.
Although some aspects of the Stoic philosophy described in the book were stirring — “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” and “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” — I found unconvincing the numerous assertions that “everything that happens, happens justly”, that nature is implicitly ordered and fair to be. The admonitions to remain true to one’s nature didn’t give me a lot of insight because Aurelius never says how to determine one’s true nature.
So I came away from _Meditations_ with mixed feelings. Its philosophy of equanimitous withdrawal from the world reminded me of an empty marble temple: resilient against the eons but austere and sterile.