7 Apr


In Joseph Brodsky’s “Homage to Marcus Aurelius”, he writes:

He wasn’t a great philosopher, nor was he a visionary; not even a sage; his Meditations is at once a melancholy and repetitive book.

True, all of it. Aurelius never introduced a new concept like Descartes, he never codified a tradition like Aristotle, he didn’t announce the problems of an age like Nietzsche. There is nothing new or especially penetrating in Meditations, so why is it my favourite book of philosophy?

I’m not widely read enough to qualify to teach the stuff but I’ve read some and retained that that appears to apply to actual life as I know it. Aristotle’s Politics, for example, is a healthy anchor for a dream-prone mind that may be tempted to believe Shepard Fairey’s contribution to the last presidential election. It’s in Aristotle’s run-down of the history of Greek polities, in Machiavelli’s similar musings that you’ll find at least one facet of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return well polished and gleaming in its depressing lucidation. But Meditations, this book that is “no match for Epictitus”, is the book I cling to in times of trouble. It is for me what the Gospels are for Christians. And I suspect, despite his disinterested qualifications, Brodsky felt the same.

How would Aurelius feel among us barbarians, Brodsky asks? “For we are barbarians to you, if only because we speak neither Greek nor Latin. We are also afraid death far more than you ever were, and our herd instinct is stronger than the one for self-preservation.” Perhaps therein lies one clue for the Meditations is stuffed with the contemplation of death, of its coming and of its ultimate desirability. It is, after all, in concordance with nature. Is there fear at the heart of this interest in the subject? But in his words is there not also comfort in the continuity?

Aurelius was probably the closest thing to the Platonic ideal of the ruler we’re ever likely to get. Democracy, that guards so well against tyranny, won’t permit of the likes of Aurelius consequence of the same constitution and statutes therefrom. He was a reluctant ruler. His ambition had been to follow his ancient Greek masters to the Agora and the Academy. When he accepted the highest office he left that behind. Meditations is therefore not really a book of philosophy. The man had no time to write such. It is a kind of moral diary:

Meditations is thus a patchy book, nurtured by interference. It is a disjointed, rambling internal monologue, with occasional flashes of pedantry as well as of genius.

We live in the democratic age of the car. And we fear death perhaps because “we can’t conceive of dwindling into particles again”. That “after hoarding so many goods [it’s] unpalatable”. The fact that Aurelius was a virtuous and powerful may have something to do with the aura of his work tho’ I doubt it much. My reasoning is grounded in my capacity to visualize without much trouble someone coming upon the small volume, drawing inspiration from its contents without ever knowing who Aurelius actually was.

But still I can’t entirely discount the fascination with the Equestrian Age – of which High Rome was the high point – extant amongst the wistful and nostalgic. Indeed, Nietzsche’s problem of rank may manifest in small part in a longing for the definitive hierarchies of the eras of sword and sandal; of toga and marble. What’s the fascination? The straight up metaphysics of a dead civilization whose glory has never been quite surpassed, even by the Americans? Perhaps the spiritual cure for those of us, acutely aware of the soul but unable to bear with the rigid absolutes of Christianity that appear to deny the complexity beloved to some of us: the universe is change, life is opinion. Aurelius was aware, as an adherent of the Greeks, of what we do not know. Many advocates of Abrahamic Monotheism appear to believe that that, that is not in the Book is not worth knowing. They certainly believe that the Book cannot be questioned. Aurelius asks questions. His convictions are based on them. I think (and feel) that it’s as it should be.

Perhaps it’s the lofty aspiration to Virtue expressed in the book. The Christian God is one with which “you trade in virtue to obtain eternal favours”. But to Aurelius and myself this renders virtue a mere commodity. Something one does out of fear and desire. The value of Aurelian virtue, Brodsky writes, lies “precisely in its being a gamble, not an investment”. There is no pay-off.

So finally it’s the metaphysics being aesthetically agreeable perhaps. Or perhaps, like Epictitus and unlike so many others, this is a book of philosophy that serves you in times and places when you are made acutely aware of your limitations – your lack of liberty. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – in this limited life with its fear and its addlepated herd – perhaps I read it because it was written to no-one but its author.

I’m sure Aurelius would be surprised, perhaps delighted/perhaps dismayed, to see the Penguin Classics edition in all the bookstores. The thoughts, the aphorisms, open up any page and read a chunk. It’s good. Maybe Aurelius is, far from the face of antiquity, the ideal philosophy for the Modern Era. Short, to the point, practical and honest advice in easy to digest bite-sized pieces.


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