I am writing this review of the book Marcus Aurelius MEDITATIONS translated and with an introduction by Gregory Hays. There are a number of translations of Meditations, but this is the one that Ryan Holiday recommended and is considered by many to be the best. I would recommend getting the hard cover version of the book, available at Amazon for around $11. I’ve listened to the audio version, but for me the written version is superior, making it easier to focus and really absorb the information. The hardcover version has very clear type, not too small and easy to read. The book overall is very high quality.
In this translation of Meditations the introduction is about 50 pages, not a trivial amount of reading. I would recommend reading the introduction at least once, as it contains a lot of historical information about the times and about the author Marcus Aurelius. The introduction also helps you understand the origin of this book.
A little background on Marcus Aurelius:
“Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors (a term coined some 13 centuries later by Niccolò Machiavelli), and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire lasting from 27 BC to 180 AD. He served as Roman consul in 140, 145, and 161.”
“Marcus Aurelius was born during the reign of Hadrian to the emperor’s nephew, the praetor Marcus Annius Verus, and the heiress Domitia Calvilla. His father died when he was three, and his mother and grandfather raised him. After Hadrian’s adoptive son, Aelius Caesar, died in 138, the emperor adopted Marcus’s uncle Antoninus Pius as his new heir. In turn, Antoninus adopted Marcus and Lucius, the son of Aelius. Hadrian died that year, and Antoninus became emperor. Now heir to the throne, Marcus studied Greek and Latin under tutors such as Herodes Atticus and Marcus Cornelius Fronto. He married Antoninus’s daughter Faustina in 145.”
Written during his rule as Emperor of Rome, Meditations was never intended to be a book, let alone read by anyone else. It is the intimate thoughts captured on paper by Marcus Aurelius. Written as a personal journal so that Marcus could capture his thoughts and the challenges he faced during his rule as an Emperor, the writing is often short notations organized as books and versus. Here is an example:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful-and hence neither good nor bad.” Marcus Aurelius Meditations 2:11
If you omit the introduction there are only 191 pages in this translation of Meditations, making this a book you could read in a day or two. In all there are twelve books, that could be thought of as chapters in Meditations. When I first obtained this book, I would read one chapter a day, but later on during subsequent readings I might read a page or two in the morning. I’ve read the book 5 times now, and intend to keep reading it into the foreseeable future. My copy of Meditations sits right next to the Tao Te Ching, which is another one of my favorite books. I would often read a couple versus from each of these books in the morning.
There are no words to describe what an incredible book that Meditations is. Meditations reveals what a great ruler Marcus Aurelius was and if you know anything about some of the others that ruled the Roman Empire, then you will understand what a rare person he was. Marcus Aurelius is regarded as one of the great stoics including Seneca, Epictetus, Zeno Of Citium, Chrysippus, and Diogenes of Babylon. Marcus was a philosopher Emperor, not a likely profession from which one of the greatest stoics of all time would be born.
Having read hundreds of books in the last 20 years, I rate Marcus Aurelius Meditations as one of the top 5 books I have ever read. This is the kind of book you should read in small increments on a daily basis if possible. The stoic philosophy that screams out from every page will change your life. I’m sure if Marcus Aurelius knew that millions of copies of his journal were read by so many people he would turn over in his grave. It is our good fortune that it survived and we have the good the opportunity to be enriched by it.
What can reading Meditations do for you?
Well throughout history being a human being has been a struggle. There has been plenty of pain, suffering, and death that we all face. The Stoics viewed virtue as the primary goal in life, expressed as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Meditations will address all of these virtues and help you cope with your own challenges. What more can you ask from a book?
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