In a comment on my entry on Seneca, Cynthia asked to hear more about the physical realities of the Penguin Great Ideas books whose attractiveness I had written about so lustily. As well she should have! I can't believe I forgot to include some shallow gushing about how pretty these books are in person. So here it is, a fitting counter-balance to the gloom and doom of Marcus Aurelius: these books are SO PRETTY. Really, they're even prettier than I anticipated, largely because the covers are matte-finished and the art is pressed into them, so each slim volume has a super-satisfying, tactile element to it that's absolutely irresistible. In addition, they're light and thin, and both their height and width is smaller than an average paperback, which gives them that undeniable "smaller is more appealing" aesthetic. The print is just the right size and spacing: the text isn't cramped, but there's enough substance on each page that you feel you're sinking your teeth into something. Finally, I love the texture of the pages: just right for absorbing my underlining ink in a satisfying way, and they exude that delicious, new-book smell. All in all, I'm even more excited about these than I was when I first posted. Hooray!

And now, to the Romans. I'm glad I read Seneca before Marcus Aurelius, because they inform each other in interesting ways (props to the people at Penguin who curated this collection!).* Written about two hundred years after "On the Shortness of Life," Aurelius's Meditations still exists in a recognizable ethos of Roman stoicism, but one I found significantly more pessimistic and restrictive than its precursor. Whereas Seneca celebrates the act of retiring into philosophy, devoting time to educating oneself and developing one's mind and spiritual well-being, Marcus Aurelius claims that the only rational way to spend one's time is in a life devoted to civic service. Seneca seems more "contemporary" (by which I might just mean that I agree with more of his points) in his attempts to balance public and private life; Marcus Aurelius defines humans as "rational, social beings," and holds us up to a constant standard of rationality and sociability. Understandably, given that yardstick, he's pretty disgusted with the actual behavior he sees around him, but he sees the shortcomings of the populace as just more evidence that we shouldn't fear death, but wait calmly for our time to come. It's people, and not Nature, which is problematic, he argues: since death is part of Nature's plan, there can be nothing to fear.

I found a lot to disagree with in the Meditations; overall, this phase of Roman stoicism isn't a philosophy that really speaks to me. I don't believe, for example, in many of Marcus Aurelius's core precepts, such as that the universe is organized logically, and that every event happens for the best of the world as a whole:

Universal Nature's impulse was to create an orderly world. It follows, then, that everything now happening must follow a logical sequence; if it were not so, the prime purpose towards which the impulses of the World-Reason are directed would be an irrational one. Remembrance of this will help you to face many things more calmly.

I can see how such beliefs would help a person to face many things more calmly, but I just don't feel they describe for my experience of the twenty-first century. I'm reminded of a character in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (a book I hated, but this one passage rings true), who rejects her psychiatrist's claim that the patient's feelings about the threat of nuclear war are identical to those of a mythological Greek character dreamed up 3,000 years previous. Much in the Meditations struck me the same way: these may have seemed like plausible theories to an emperor in 170 AD, but I don't believe that nuclear warfare or the decimation of the earth's ecosystems is happening for any kind of abstract "best," or proceeding according to any overarching "logic." Marcus Aurelius counsels holding oneself to an uncompromisingly upright standard while more or less ignoring the misdeeds of one's neighbors. On one level, I this makes sense: he's essentially cautioning against becoming a busybody or a hypocrite; he's promoting tolerance. But what he doesn't acknowledge is the degree to which we are all profoundly interconnected: there are some actions on the part of others against which I feel morally obligated to fight. Marcus Aurelius's position that we all live and die alone, independent of one another, has been convincingly disproved as far as I'm concerned - nor would I want to live in a world where we are all such islands as he imagines.

Neither do I believe, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, that we ought to "Erase fancy; curb impulse; quench desire." Fancy, impulse and desire, along with pleasure (which he's equally down on) are sources of inspiration and motivation for great things. Sure, they can get out of hand; a person who ONLY thinks about his or her own pleasure is hardly a worthwhile member of society. But so much has been accomplished because of the pleasures of creativity, because of a visceral delight in music, or color, or the intricacies of electronic circuitry, or the mysteries of the human brain. Curiosity is not rational, nor is the urge toward personal expression. I believe humans are largely IRrational (although reason plays its part in our lives), and whether we like that or hate it, we're setting ourselves up for spectacular failure if we attempt to deny our less rational components. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius makes this argument about pleasure:

Repentance is remorse for the loss of some useful opportunity. Now, what is good is always helpful, and must be the concern of every good man; but an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. It follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful.

I mean seriously, what tosh. Who HASN'T repented of having let some opportunity for pleasure pass by? Good grief, I'm still kicking myself over having missed that Liz Phair concert in 1995! Every time an out-of-town friend is in for a short time and I can't see her, I regret it. When I used to work on Saturdays, there were a whole parade of local events that I regretted having to miss. All of this is not because I'm some kind of degenerate, but because consuming art and maintaining healthy relationships are "useful opportunities," and they're also pleasurable. I would even maintain that a large part of their usefulness comes from the pleasure they give. Come to think of it, it's odd that Marcus Aurelius so readily claims that humans are social beings whose only rational option is to devote ourselves in service to the State, and yet refuses to acknowledge our interconnectedness, and the ways in which we nourish and help one another on a more intimate level. Either that, or he's refusing to acknowledge any other type of pleasure than unrestrained bacchanalian orgies. Either way, I think he's full of it.

But despite all the axes I could grind with Marcus Aurelius, there was a lot that impressed me in the Meditations as well. He writes eloquently about change - how we persistently fear it, but how it is really at the bottom of all life: inescapable, and ultimately positive, since Nature obviously set up the world to include so much of it. I was impressed at his postulation of conservation of energy:

I consist of a formal element and a material. Neither of these can ever pass away into nothing, any more than either of them came into being from nothing. Consequently every part of me will one day be re-fashioned, by a process of transition, into some other portion of the universe; which in its turn will again be changed into yet another part, and so onward to infinity.

And, despite its pessimism, I'm utterly in love with this passage on the fleetingness of everything we tend to value in the world:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being in incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.

In fact, the flashes of breathtaking literary beauty were what saved the Meditations for me, even when I disagreed with most of its ideas. Sometimes these were no more than lines: "All things fade into the storied past," he claims at one point, and "the soul becomes dyed in the color of its thoughts." Such loveliness.

I disagreed with Marcus Aurelius, but I still enjoyed reading him, and I'm enjoying engaging critically with a chronological progression of thought. Next up in the Great Ideas series: a re-match between me and St. Augustine of Hippo.

*I realize that the first part of this essay sounds like I'm being paid by Penguin to shill for them. This is not the case. Although, given that I'm already a fan, I wouldn't say no to a free set of these books...Penguin? Are you listening?


  • They are gorgeous, aren't they? And feel good in the hand. And you are not a Penguin pimp. You just found something worthy of your bookish love. :)

    I have also read this one. There is something vaguely inhuman about Marcus Aurelius to me so I enjoy and concur with your opinions here. His writings have always reminded me of a Victorian with heavily scripted, moralistic views held up to the public but who possibly enjoyed a plethora of Victorian porn on the side. But that is just twisted me. Marcus Aurelius would have shook his head disapprovingly through that whole Liz Phair concert while secretly lusting after her.

  • I haven't come across these books yet, so I don't know first-hand what they look like, but your description makes them sound wonderful! I've never read The Meditations, although I would like to at some point; it's good to have an introduction to his ideas here so I'm a little more prepared. Enjoy Augustine when you get there!

  • I should have you come and praise the prettiness of these books for the Really Old Classics Challenge: see folks? really old classics come in pretty new books too!!

    I love reading your thoughts here and you're inspiring me to find some of these essays too.

  • Thank goodness for 'breathtaking literary beauty'! I'm glad you found things to enjoy in this book, and I'm glad you got to use the word "tosh" in this review. Once again, really interesting thoughts (and an excellent gush about the pretty, pretty edition!) I'm looking forward to your opinions about St. Augustine. :)

  • It's interesting that Aurelius is what we have of his time period, you know? I'd be really interested to know the history around it more - he was an emperor after all, so anything her wrote, I'd imagine, has to be seen fromt he PoV (in other words, if I say 'Ask not what your country can do for you...' it's not quite the same thing as when JFK said it, right?). After all, his son was the emperor who got a thrill out of dressing up as a gladiator and fighting in the ARena - not exactly a stoic act :/. But, MA is supposed to be one of the not-nasty-emperors, so maybe he really did live up to his values...

  • This was very enjoyable to read. I think we get so much more from a book when we are engaged by it even if we disagree and feel compelled to argue with its author. It forces us to solidify our own thoughts just a little bit more. And of course, it helps to have a book so beautifully constructed as an object. Shame on Aurelius for not acknowledging how pleasure can be a good thing!

  • Pierre Hadot argues (to me quite convincingly) that the idea that these are Marcus' meditations is a misnomer and they should be regarded a a series of stoic spiritual exercises. So the objective is not to present a system of thought but "to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practice them". So the idea is not to eschew pleasure, but not to allow yourself to get wound up about it, which I think is what that passage is getting at.

  • Frances: Ha, I think you're really onto something with the Victorian lecher parallel! (Plus, who could help lusting after 1995-era Liz Phair?)

    Dorothy: Yes, they are wonderful! I highly recommend them. Augustine & I have a history, but I'll be interested to revisit him and see how my reactions may have changed... :-)

  • Rebecca: I'm thinking I'll join the challenge and enter my Augustine & Thomas a Kempis reviews for it, so I'll be sure to work in some sly references to the beauty of these editions! :-)

    Sarah: Don't you love the word "tosh"? So eloquently disdainful. :-) And thank goodness for literary beauty, indeed.

  • Jason: Really good points; I thought about that a lot while I was reading MA. Because of course a Roman Emperor has a vested interest in arguing that everyone should devote themselves to a life of civic duty: that would make his job so much easier! Even if he wasn't a hypocrite, his position in life certainly would have influenced his outlook. It's interesting to think about how someone in a different social position might have engaged with him.

    Stephanie: Yes, I'm anticipating that many of these Great Ideas authors will provoke argument, and I'm actually really looking forward to it! I try not to argue just for the sake of arguing, but it's so bracing once in a while. :-)

  • Gabe: Wow, that's so interesting; it sheds new light on MANY aspects of the whole document. I don't know if even that can save the particular "pleasure" paragraph I quoted (in my eyes, obviously), but it definitely changes my perception of what MA was trying to do. Thanks for commenting!

  • Sorry for the unrestrained comment. Exhausting week and two glasses of pinto noir later, I'll write whatever comes to mind. :) Posting on Kristin this weekend, and am avoiding reading other posts until after I am done. I have such an historical fiction bias that I am hesitant about polluting the group read. Choosing words carefully.

  • Frances: No, don't be sorry! I thought it was hilarious, and also agreed. :-) And don't think that criticizing the book is going to pollute the group read - plenty of people were critical of various parts of 2666 (Steph, Jackie, Lu), and it just made for interesting conversation.

  • Emily, thank you for your shallow gushing on the outside of these books. Only you could have made that relevant to the inside--as "a counter balance to the doom and gloom of Marcus Aurelius." Well done!

    I so enjoy how you disagree with him, and even more, the lovely passages you cite toward the end about change, and most especially, "All things fade into the storied past," and "the soul becomes dyed in the color of its thoughts."

  • Cynthia: Thanks for reminding me about the need to gush! And yes, aren't those two lines lovely? They would have been enough to make the whole book worthwhile, I think.

  • Oh I'm so envious! Yes, they really are PRETTY, and I'm a sucker for pretty looking covers. And then by saying "they exude that delicious, new-book smell", well you really have me craving for them right now :) I haven't yet tried buying books online and having them delivered all the way to the Philippines by mail, but this Penguin collection looks just so irresistible that I just might try it this time. Thanks for all the lovely reviews! :)

    Another comment on your thoughts... I believe in God and I believe in the Bible, but like you I don't believe that "every event happens for the best of the world" as part of a universal plan. Nothing in what I've learned about the Bible, for instance, suggests that human suffering was ever part of some "plan". And I guess it also wouldn't be a very logical argument to say that Satan's rebellion (for those who believe in him) had been necessary to achieve something better for humanity.

    And as for your thoughts about pleasure, well I very much agree with you (what was Aurelius even thinking? LOL!). But yes, I'm interested in this book mostly just to get a taste of Aurelius' eloquent monologues. Wasn't he an emperor during some kind of Roman golden era? (Pax Romana?) At least I suppose that should mean he's rather learned and quite good with words, right? So I'm looking forward to that. I am, after all, more of a form-over-plot kind of reader (or in this case form-over-message).

  • Mark David: Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I'd just like to take a moment to geek out about how cool it is that we're on opposite sides of the world from each other, talking about ordering books from a place mid-way between!

    I think you would really enjoy Marcus Aurelius; he definitely does have a way with words, and reading his thoughts is, as you point out, of great historical interest even though I don't know that much about the history of the Roman Empire. And I totally relate to what you say about being a form-over-message reader! Me too, definitely. There are times when beautiful writing isn't enough for me, but it doesn't happen that often. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography