Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Perhaps you need some tidy aphorism to tuck away in the back of your mind…
What’s interesting about reading “classic” books is just how fucking weird most of them are. Consider Meditations:
Not only was it not written for publication, but Marcus clearly had no expectation that anyone but himself would ever read it….[T]he “you” of the text is not a generic “you,” but the emperor himself….It is not a diary, at least in the conventional sense. The entries contain little or nothing related to Marcus’s day-to-day life: few names, no dates and, with two exceptions, no places. It also lacks the sense of audience—the reader over one’s shoulder—that tends to characterize even the most secretive diarist….[It] is not tentative and exploratory…and it contains little or nothing that is original. It suggests not a mind recording new perceptions or experimenting with new arguments, but one obsessively repeating and reframing ideas long familiar but imperfectly absorbed.
It is, as Gregory Hays, the translator, puts it: “a self-help book in the most literal sense.” It’s Aurelius helping himself, reminding himself of what he needs to do, which leads to the “repetitiveness” of the text—“the continual circling back to the same few problems.” The entries in the book are “‘spiritual exercises’ composed to provide momentary stay against the stress and confusion of everyday life.”
The book feels modern because it’s unfinished—there’s no solid organizing principle or structure to it, so the reader has to do a lot of the work, pulling out the threads, connecting entries, and making sense of the whole. It seems to me a book ripe for remixing and reshuffling—I’d love my friends who have such huge boners for the book to make top-ten lists of their “greatest hits” from the book.
(Actually if you click Mark’s “stoicism” tag, there’s a bunch of good quotes there.)
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
The things you think about determine the quality of your thoughts.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.
People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now.
Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don’t worry about whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it as unimportant.
To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.”
Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.
UPDATE: One thing I need to point out: I actually didn’t have a great time reading this book, because I tried to read it straight through, start to finish. Because it’s so repetitive and collage-like, it can be kind of mind-numbing if you to try to devour it at once. To me, it’s best read in little chunks, like a bathroom book, over several days.
Filed under: my reading year 2013