In Plato's Republic, Socrates discusses the possibility of a philosopher king; that is, a person who would rule in a way that is just because their thoughts and desires are outgrowths of their philosophical ideologies. Socrates suggests that this would be the best of all possible rulers - and, of course, the implication is that Plato would be this greatest ruler, because the philosophy a ruler 'should' follow was Plato's. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 A.D. until his death in 180 A.D. He was the last of the five great Emperors who ruled Rome during a period which Edward Gibbon, writing his magnificent The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, described as the time when the world was at its happiest and most prosperous. He was not, as far as anyone else knew, a philosopher - he was simply (and sufficiently) a proficient emperor, an able ruler, a good statesmen. And yet, in those quiet moments of leisure when he was able to take off the mantle of emperor, Marcus Aurelius composed some of the most important works of Stoic philosophy - a series of meditations, exercises for himself, admonitions to himself, exhortations of how to be a better person.
What is immediately clear about Aurelius' Meditations is that they were written for an intimate audience of one. There is no grandstanding or pompous declaration of power or influence. There are no revelations or secrets or negative comments about current affairs. Whatever Marcus Aurelius' thoughts on the world outside himself, we are left mostly in the dark for this work. Rather, what he has done - or aims to do - is to intimately examine himself, to highlight his flaws and to recognize, but not always praise, his positive qualities. Most importantly, the Meditations are just that - a collection of thoughts, concepts, ideas and moral positions which Aurelius wishes to follow at all times. It is a handbook to himself on how best to live his life.
Two strains of thought which run through almost every page of the Meditations is first, the responsibility of a person's actions, and second, the concept of death. In Book 5, Aurelius writes,
'Another does wrong. What is that to me? Let him see to it: he has his own disposition, his own action. I have now what universal nature wishes me to have now, and I do what my own nature wishes me to do now.' Personal responsibility is an important theme for Aurelius, but more than that, he requires a constant awareness within himself that while he is responsible for his own actions, he is not responsible for the actions of others and should not let himself be affected by their bad deeds. He writes that if a man smells bad, it does no good to get angry. Rather, what should be done is to calmly inform the person, then leave the matter in their hands. If they change and improve themselves, you have done your duty. If not, your duty has still been done - the fault remains with the other person. This concept of the self's responsibility for the self is an interesting one when taken into interactions with others. If we are to examine our feelings, does it really make sense for us to become angry at the folly of another? Surely, as Aurelius states, it is best simply to help them as much as we can, and then leave the choice of being angry or upset to them. What have we to be angry for? Nothing, if we live our lives the best way we can.
A second major thought is death. Aurelius reminds himself that death is something that will happen to everyone, and thus should not be feared.
'Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny - what fraction of that are you?' And again:
'How many who once rose to fame are now consigned to oblivion: and how many who sang their fame are long disappeared.' Marcus Aurelius writes to remind himself that fame, no matter how glorious, begins to fade the moment death takes you away - and sometimes before. He believed death to be either a cessation of thought, which meant it wouldn't matter to you once you were dead, or an alteration of consciousness (i.e. Heaven), which meant the current consciousness - your current life - would not matter then, either. Thus, the important thing to do with yourself is to be the best and most noble person you can be: 'The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.'
It is important to remember that the man who wrote these words was arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time. That he could rule the greatest empire the world had yet seen, and still write with such modesty and grace is something truly admirable. He calls for the moral life, the good life, and is constantly chastening himself to live the way he knows is best. As these works were most likely never intended for publication, they can and should be seen as Aurelius stripping himself of all physical and temporal difficulties to concern his mind purely and only with what is truly important. That he was able to explore himself with such honesty, and write with such clarity, is nothing short of astonishing. Each page contains short passages of great wisdom, alongside longer paragraphs of thought that tower above the carefully crafted citadel of morality which concerns most of the work.
The Penguin Classic edition of this work contains one hundred and thirty pages of notes, an index of names and an index of quotations, as well as a general index. These indexes offer the non-specialist reader a wealth of information regarding the scattered quotes and references that populate Aurelius' text. It is the notes section, however, that truly shines. Each of the twelve books of the Meditations are summarised and explained, and then the more difficult concepts and allusions are further detailed. Thus, a curious reader is able to read the explanation, while a scholar or student has, in the same book, detailed references and starting points for further research. Complementary to that is a fine introduction by Diskin Clay, who gives an overview of Marcus Aurelius' life and times.
The Meditations is very short, at one hundred and twenty-two pages. Each book is roughly ten pages, with most of the writings being only a few lines. What this means is that it is a remarkably easy work to pick up and put down, and coupled with the directness and elegance of his writing, the Meditations becomes a book that could easily serve as a companion for life. Marcus Aurelius' writing is not directed toward a race or class or gender or temperament; rather, it is directed inwards, at the mind and the soul, two fundamental aspects of humanity we all possess. It is somewhat trite to say that there is 'something for everything' within a work, but in the case of the Meditations, it is true. Read this book and find solace in the work of an elegant mind and a worthy outlook on life.