July 18, 2012

The CCLaP 100: "Meditations," by Marcus Aurelius

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations (160-180 AD)
By Marcus Aurelius
Book #67 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Written essentially as a private journal from around 160 to 180 AD, by one of the better leaders in the history of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (a title given to this manuscript almost randomly, in that Marcus never meant for it to be published) can be thought of along the lines of any great military strategist's memoirs, a combination of practical information, an explanation of their larger philosophy about life (Stoicism in Marcus' case), and official acknowledgement of all the mentors of their youth they owe their success to. A working soldier-emperor who was handpicked by the previous Caesar when he was just a child, the upper-class Marcus was subsequently put through the finest education that was humanly possible on the planet at that time, which is what makes his otherwise workaday journal so historically important; for by studying under the finest minds of his age, his surviving notes give us a rare look at what it was like to be a student of these masters, and what kinds of practical knowledge was actually being culled by these students when it came time for them to start their day jobs. Not really "literature" per se, nor even in any kind of coherent order, this should be read much more like one of those punchy advice books from famous corporate CEOs, full of bullet-point Twitter-like messages that can be quickly scanned and absorbed.

The argument for it being a classic:
As with most books this old, the main argument for this being a classic is its massive historical importance, a hugely informing snapshot of its times that is even more valuable for being private and therefore more candid. Plus, historians generally agree that this is perhaps the third or fourth most important book about Stoicism to survive those years; certainly not groundbreaking in its own right, but definitely an easy-to-follow primer on the subject (think "The Ancient Roman Idiot's Guide To..."), a philosophy which for those who don't know advocates a type of "living as one with nature" that is translated here as meaning a clean and minimalist lifestyle, one that largely avoids empty pleasures for the crippling vices they are. (After all, as Marcus reminds us, the only way your enemies can hurt you is by you yourself deliberately cultivating a weakness they can exploit; if you instead lead a virtuous life devoid of physical addictions and moral compromises, there's no way for these people to attack you for being weak or hypocritical.) And so by doing so, Marcus almost accidentally established a long and proud tradition of Stoicism among the military, the third main argument for why this is a classic, a "body is a temple" mindset that is still the main guiding force behind even such 21st-century military commanders as David Petraeus.

The argument against:
There seems to be two main arguments for why this should not be considered a classic, starting with the most obvious; that much like many of the books from this period being reviewed for this essay series, its age and outdated writing style simply makes it an awkward choice for everyday reading by a general audience, certainly historically important but with information that can now be found in modern books in a much more nuanced and contemporary way. And then there's the people who are simply in disagreement with the fundamentals of Stoicism itself, a sort of "philosophy for Republicans" that encourages a simplistic, joyless, black-and-white interpretation of the world, and which while not necessarily harsh unto itself is absolutely practiced in a harsh way by its most famous and vocal fans; for example, famed modern moral relativist Bertrand Russell thought that Stoicism was a big pile of hogwash, a "sour grapes" view of the world that argues that none of us will ever be happy, so we should pretend instead that "acting good" is just as important.

My verdict:
So setting aside the argument that a book should automatically be disqualified from being a classic simply because one doesn't personally agree with its philosophy (an argument I find inherently invalid no matter what the situation), otherwise I have to admit that I mostly side with Marcus' critics today; for while I found it interesting to flip through this light tome, or at least as interesting as one of those aforementioned bullet-point advice books from famous corporate executives, I also got tired of this manuscript rather quickly, and didn't really get much out of reading the original text that I didn't already get merely from its Wikipedia entry. (And also, I have to agree with several of the angry sentiments I found at Goodreads while researching this essay; that even though there are over 200 meditations here, it seems that Marcus really had no more than a dozen or so original thoughts, the rest of these text blasts essentially repeats of the same information over and over again.)

In fact, now that I have recently reached the two-thirds point of finally being done with this CCLaP 100 series (four and a half years down! only two years to go!), I find myself once again reflecting on what the biggest surprises have been since starting these essays back in 2008; and certainly one of the most unexpected surprises of all is just how thoroughly and cleanly the entire idea of "literature" (and by this I mean "storytelling via book-length written tale") was single-handedly invented during the rise of Romanticism in the late 1700s, and how before this moment there were largely no book-length written stories at all (with a few exceptions, of course), most storytelling instead taking place via plays and formal poetry. I've always known that when these pre-1700s citizens wanted to "sit down with a good book," it was generally nonfiction they were picking up; but it wasn't until I started reading a fair sampling of this pre-1700s "literature" that I started profoundly realizing how little this work conforms to the modern definition of the word, and that the very concept never even existed until well after the Renaissance. Although it's been a valuable learning experience, it can be safely said that when it eventually comes time in another few years to compile the reading list for the "CCLaP 200," I will most likely be starting with 1719's Robinson Crusoe and exclusively making my way forward in time from there.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

Read even more about Meditations: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:54 AM, July 18, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |