By Kathleen Adamson (July 8, 2021)
Meditations: The Annotated Edition, by Marcus Aurelius, Edited by Robin Waterfield, Basic Books, April 16, 2021, 384 pp., $32.37
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161-180CE, make up one of the most popular and enduring works of philosophy of all time, although they were never intended for public consumption. The texts, divided into 12 notebooks, consist of personal reflections, intentions to do better, and affirmation of the basic principles of Stoicism. But Aurelius was no abstracted ponderer—according to editor Robin Waterfield, he was ‘a man who longed to do good and to love all humanity, while… his status as an emperor impeded his achievement of these goals.’
During his reign as emperor, Marcus Aurelius fought in two major wars, dealt with a plague in Rome (probably measles or smallpox), and was generally known as a capable and responsible administrator. However, his Meditations give little specific detail about his reign, focusing instead on the nature of the struggle to do good under difficult circumstances. Notebooks 1, 2, 3, and 12 are more personal in tone, while notebooks 4-11 are more abstract. However, all the Meditations were private texts, as is clear from a 10th century archivist’s title for the manuscript—”Marcus’ writings to himself.”
Waterfield’s edition is clearly and spaciously printed. Rather than forcing Aurelius’ blunt prose into elaborate sentences, he retains the original text’s list-like quality, advising the reader to think of it as ‘point-form notes.’ The translation is straightforward and matter-of-fact. It uses contractions and modern language sparingly. However, the special selling point of this edition is Waterfield’s extensive annotations, which often take up half of the page. They clarify Aurelius’ offhand references to people and scholars, draw connections between similar passages, and generally deepen the intimacy of the reader with Aurelius by providing contextual historical detail. The reading eye constantly flicks up and down the page, which may be distracting for some readers, but the general effect is pleasantly like a Wikipedia deep dive. Additionally, the notes frequently remind us that Aurelius, when he talks tough, is talking to himself—his own worst critic.
A fascinating element of Aurelius’ Meditations is his consciousness of himself as a presence in history. Thinking about the fragility of life, he looks back to the destruction of Pompeii, with a shiver that will be familiar to many museum-goers. Waterfield notes that he ‘often encourages himself to dwell upon the past’ to gain clarity about the fundamental things shared by all humans. To calm his fears of death, he reminds himself that “First, don’t be upset. Nothing happens that isn’t in accord with universal nature, and before long you won’t exist at all, just like Hadrian and Augustus.” (Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, who died in the year 14CE. Hadrian ruled from 117-138CE.)
In modern English, the word ‘stoic’ describes someone who is able to bear hardship without showing distress. Stoicism, as a philosophy, does encourage people to be resilient and uncomplaining under duress, but it also emphasizes the virtue of ‘sociability,’ which ‘stemmed from recognition that we are all kin, and members of the same community.’ While he often seems to battle with his own ego, there’s no doubt that Aurelius’ love for his fellow man is real. One earnest passage reads:
“If someone can prove me wrong and show me that something I thought or did was mistaken, I’ll gladly change, because my goal is the truth and the truth has never harmed anyone. The man who’s harmed is the one who persists in his own self-deception and ignorance.”
Waterfield’s excellent translation and annotations help the relevance and intimacy of the Meditations shine through brightly. This book is full of interesting historical detail, and I look forward to returning to it many times.
(Kathleen Adamson is a musician, composer, academic, and community activist based in Montreal, Canada.)