Meditations is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement.
It is possible that large portions of the work were written at Sirmium, where he spent much time planning military campaigns from 170 to 180.
Some of it was written while he was positioned at Aquincum on campaign in Pannonia, because internal notes tell us that the first book was written when he was campaigning against the Quadi on the river Granova (modern-day Hron) and the second book was written at Carnuntum.
It is unlikely that Marcus Aurelius ever intended the writings to be published and the work has no official title, so “Meditations” is one of several titles commonly assigned to the collection. These writings take the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs.
History of the text
There is no certain mention of the Meditations until the early 10th-century. A doubtful mention is made by the orator Themistius in about AD 364.
In an address to the emperor Valens, On Brotherly Love, he says:
“You have no need of the exhortations of Marcus.”
Another possible reference is in the collection of Greek poems known as the Palatine Anthology, a work dating to the 10th-century but containing much earlier material.
The anthology contains an epigram dedicated to “the Book of Marcus“. It has been proposed that this epigram was written by the Byzantine scholar Theophylact Simocatta in the 7th-century.
The first direct mention of the work comes from Arethas of Caesarea (c. 860–935), a bishop who was a great collector of manuscripts.
At some date before 907 he sent a volume of the Meditations to Demetrius, Archbishop of Heracleia, with a letter saying:
“I have had for some time an old copy of the Emperor Marcus’ most profitable book, so old indeed that it is altogether falling to pieces . . . This I have had copied and am able to hand down to posterity in its new dress.”
Arethas also mentions the work in marginal notes (scholia) to books by Lucian and Dio Chrysostom where he refers to passages in the “Treatise to Himself“, and it was this title which the book bore in the manuscript from which the first printed edition was made in the 16th-century.
Arethas’ own copy has now vanished, but it is thought to be the likely ancestor of the surviving manuscripts.
The next mention of the Meditations is in the Suda lexicon published in the late 10th-century. The Suda calls the work “a directing of his own life by Marcus the Emperor in twelve books,” which is the first mention of a division of the work into twelve books. The Suda makes use of some thirty quotations taken from books I, III, IV, V, IX, and XI.
Around 1150, John Tzetzes, a grammarian of Constantinople, quotes passages from Books IV and V attributing them to Marcus.
About 200 years later Nicephorus Callistus (c. 1295–1360) in his Ecclesiastical History writes that “Marcus Antoninus composed a book for the education of his son Marcus [i.e. Commodus] , full of all worldly experience and instruction.”
The Meditations is thereafter quoted in many Greek compilations from the 14th to 16th centuries. Wilhelm Xylander first translated the Meditations into Latin in 1558.
The present text is based almost entirely upon two manuscripts. One is the Codex Palatinus (P), also known as the Codex Toxitanus (T), first published in 1558/9 but now lost. The other manuscript is the Codex Vaticanus 1950 (A) in the Vatican Library.
The modern history of the Meditations dates from the issue of the first printed edition by Wilhelm Xylander in 1558 or 1559.
It was published at the instigation of Conrad Gesner and printed by his cousin Andreas Gesner at Zurich. The book was bound with a work by Marinus (Proclus vel De Felicitate, also a first edition).
To the Meditations was added a Latin translation by Xylander who also included brief notes. Conrad Gesner stated in his dedicatory letter that he “received the books of Marcus from the gifted poet Michael Toxites from the library of Otto Heinrich, Prince Palatine“, i.e. from the collection at Heidelberg University.
The importance of this edition of the Meditations is that the manuscript from which it was printed is now lost so that it is one of the two principal sources of all modern texts.
Codex Vaticanus 1950
The Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1950 is contained in a codex which passed to the Vatican Library from the collection of Stefano Gradi in 1683.
This is a 14th-century manuscript which survives in a very corrupt state, and about forty-two lines have dropped out by accidental omissions.
Other manuscripts are of little independent value for reconstructing the text. The main ones are the Codex Darmstadtinus 2773 (D) with 112 extracts from books I–IX, and the Codex Parisinus 319 (C) with 29 extracts from Books I–IV.
Marcus Aurelius has been lauded for his capacity “to write down what was in his heart just as it was, not obscured by any consciousness of the presence of listeners or any striving after effect“.
Gilbert Murray compares the work to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and St. Augustine’s Confessions. Though Murray criticizes Marcus for the “harshness and plainness of his literary style“, he finds in his Meditations “as much intensity of feeling…as in most of the nobler modern books of religion, only a sterner power controlling it“. “People fail to understand Marcus“, he writes, “not because of his lack of self-expression, but because it is hard for most men to breathe at that intense height of spiritual life, or, at least, to breathe soberly“.
D.A. Rees calls the Meditations “unendingly moving and inspiring“, but does not offer them up as works of original philosophy.
Bertrand Russell found them contradictory and inconsistent, evidence of a “tired age” where “even real goods lose their savor“.
Using Marcus as an example of greater Stoic philosophy, he found their ethical philosophy to contain an element of “sour grapes“. “We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us, therefore, pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy“.
Both Russell and Rees find an element of Marcus’ Stoic philosophy in the philosophical system of Immanuel Kant.
German philosopher Georg Hegel offers a critique of Stoicism that follows similar lines, albeit covering different trajectories.
In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel attacks the preoccupation with the inner self as a severing, fatalistic barrier to consciousness.
A philosophy that reduces all states of harm or injustice to emotional states “could only appear on the scene in a time of universal fear and bondage.”
The Stoic refusal to meet the world is anathema to Life, a central value in Hegel’s philosophical work:
“whether on the throne or in chains, in the utter dependence of its individual existence, its aim is to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from the bustle of existence…”
M.L. Clarke concurs in his historical work on philosophical ideas, The Roman Mind, where he states “[p]olitical liberty could hardly flourish after so many years of despotism and the indifference to public affairs which it bred. And philosophy fostered the same spirit.”
In the Introduction to his 1964 translation of Meditations, the Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth discussed the profound impact of Stoicism on Christianity.
Michael Grant called Marcus Aurelius “the noblest of all the men who, by sheer intelligence and force of character, have prized and achieved goodness for its own sake and not for any reward“.
Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations for The Modern Library made The Washington Post’s bestseller list for two weeks in 2002.
The book has been described as a prototype of reflective practice by Seamus Mac Suibhne. United States President Bill Clinton said that Meditations is his favorite book, and former United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis carried his own personal copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius throughout his deployments as a Marine Corps officer in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.