Marcus Aurelius
July 24, 2009 12:08 PM   Subscribe


Marcus Aurelius: Was He Quite Ordinary?

Aren't we all?
posted by Ironmouth at 12:14 PM on July 24, 2009

One of my classics professors had a student who told him he was taking Latin so he could read the Meditations in the original.
posted by Locative at 12:19 PM on July 24, 2009 [9 favorites]

so he could read the Meditations in the original.

I hope he didn't correct him. I also hope the student didn't bother to actually acquire and glance at a copy of the Meditations in the original language until he'd had, oh I don't know, let's say 4 years of Latin under his belt. And then I hope for graduation the professor gave the student a copy of the Meditations, bound in leather, in the original Greek. And I hope the student opened it in front of him. And I hope he took a picture of the student's face, and I hope you have that picture on flickr or something, and I hope you are about to post the link because that would be AMAZING.
posted by penduluum at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2009 [44 favorites]

Might Mary Beard not actually be rather ordinary by the standard of pontificating Cambridge scholars?
posted by blucevalo at 12:32 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Oho!", I thought to myself, seeing the post headline. "An unreleased Housemartins track has been unearthed." But no.
posted by everichon at 12:45 PM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't know. The Marcus Aurelius from Gladiator was awesome and dramatic, but the Marcus Aurelius from The Last Legion was just some kid.

I guess history will never know.
posted by JHarris at 12:46 PM on July 24, 2009

penduluum, you are my kind of asshole.
posted by everichon at 12:56 PM on July 24, 2009

Marcus Aurelius might have indeed been very ordinary. It's interesting that McLynn is so reluctant to waver in his beliefs about him. Roman history fascinates me and I sort of doubt I'll ever consider any of its rulers as particularly ordinary. Look at Elagabalus, a minor character in the history of Rome.

He became ruler in a typical storm of Roman intrigue. He had 5 wives (including a vestal virgin, very taboo), a few husbands, replaced the religion's head god (Jupiter) with a sun god. Prostituted himself in the palace and was finally replaced, and ultimately killed as a result of a plot hatched by his own grandmother - the very same one who had him installed as Caesar in the first place.

Sounds crazy, right? In ancient Rome, that's ordinary.
posted by empyrean at 1:15 PM on July 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Interesting article. She makes a good point about our ignorance of norms ("typicality"). While it would be interesting to know more about the relationships between tutors and students or other Emperor's interests in philosophy, the more illuminating comparison would be between the Meditations and other collections of Stoic spiritual exercises. This would tell us right off whether Hadot's interpretation of the Meditations as spiritual exercises is correct, and also give some indication of his commitment relative to his peers. Even with this information, it would be more than a little presumptuous to evaluate how ordinary or extraordinary he was. Having the philosophical writings of other Emperors would not provide much insight, unless those writings were correspondence or a journal. Exhortations to Philosophy sounds like a rhetorical composition. Fascinating to read, but perhaps not closely linked to the man's character.
posted by BigSky at 1:40 PM on July 24, 2009

The Meditations read like Chicken Soup for the Roman Soul to me.
posted by benzenedream at 1:47 PM on July 24, 2009

I get the impression that philosophers tend to assume Marcus Aurelius was an average philosopher but a great Emperor; while historians tend to assume he was an average Emperor but a great philosopher.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:54 PM on July 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

He's on Twitter though.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:58 PM on July 24, 2009

He's on Twitter though.

Ordinary. Case closed.
posted by PlusDistance at 2:05 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading Mary Beard's Pompeii book and started reading her blog on the TLS because she is such a straight forward, practical minded, myth debunking scholar. She clearly loves what she does and she certainly does not have a romantic vision of the past nor does she get into groupie-mode about classical rock star equivalents. Quite entertaining for those same motives.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 2:28 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

oh man, this is why I really really love Metafilter (and homunculus!)

1) a post about my favorite roman emperor
2) an awesome article about some great archaeological finds
3) wonderful philosophical insights on the nature of a philosopher from our esteemed peers
4) very humorous academic anecdotes too!

thanks :)
posted by supermedusa at 2:38 PM on July 24, 2009

She concedes that Roman sources consider his interest in philosophy exceptional, but wants to over-rule them on the grounds of her own mere supposition that other emperors might have had similar works.

What, after all, would Augustus’ Exhortations have looked like, if that had survived?

Well, it would have been full of stuff about how patricians should marry and have children, and how poetry should be moral and patriotic and dignified (not like that naughty Ovid) and all those other conservative opinions Augustus made no secret of holding. It would most certainly not have been full of a lot of stuff derived from those long-haired decadent Greeks.
posted by Phanx at 2:43 PM on July 24, 2009

The Meditations read like Chicken Soup for the Roman Soul to me.

Having taught them at university, I obviously disagree. But do you say this insofar as you see them as amateurish (say, next to Epictetus or whomever you deem more canonical and/or "serious" philosophically speaking), or do you just dismiss Stoicism more generally in these terms? No snark, just curiosity.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2009

For the record, I'm totally down with conceding the obvious classist and ethnocentric issues that permeate (later) Stoicism, I'm just curious whether your disdain for The Meditations is intellectual or cultural or something else, etc.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:59 PM on July 24, 2009

"With his desire for military glory, his disastrous succession plans, his wayward wife, and his spare-time interest in philosophy, might he not actually be rather ordinary by the standard of Roman emperors?"

Although I get her point, it still seems to me thats a hell of a standard.

With his desire to wear latex jumpsuits at night, his disastrous choice of sidekicks, his inexplicable billions of dollars and his hobby of beating up random strangers using thematically appropriate high tech toys, might Batman be rather ordinary by the standards of atomic monsters running loose in our imaginary cities?
posted by Kiablokirk at 3:05 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

With his desire to wear latex jumpsuits at night, his disastrous choice of sidekicks, his inexplicable billions of dollars and his hobby of beating up random strangers using thematically appropriate high tech toys, might Batman be rather ordinary by the standards of atomic monsters running loose in our imaginary cities?

I know you meant that as a snark, but the answer would be yes, therefore confirming her point. Now if we didn't have access to the scholarly Superman material we have, we'd only be speculating.....
posted by lumpenprole at 3:09 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Meditations read like Chicken Soup for the Roman Soul to me.
posted by benzenedream at 4:47 PM on July 24 [+] [!]

I had this exact same thought while reading them for the first time last month. I was blown away by Book 1, thought it was one of the most interesting and novel openings to a book I'd ever read, and then Book 2 starts:
Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.
And I'm like huh, okay... pretty wise, I guess.

Next sentence:
All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.
Whoa... really, you think that, guy? That's pretty high-handed. Maybe they have different values.

It goes on:
But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
At this point it starts to lose me. It becomes feel-goody. “We are made for co-operation”? “To act against one another then is contrary to nature”? Like, yeah, sort of, but you're getting into half-truth territory here.

From there it gets into
Remember how long thou hast been putting off these things, and how often thou hast received an opportunity from the gods, and yet dost not use it
How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are- all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe
and at that point I'm like you know what? This is just Cary Tennis. I actually do like reading it but I prefer it in advice column format dealing with the issues of my day.

I haven't read past Book 2 so I reserve judgment past that.
posted by skwt at 4:06 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Joe Lisboa: My comment reflected my dislike for short aphorisms more than any real dislike for Aurelius' philosophy or Stoicism in general. Aphorisms, due to their brevity, tend towards overly general universal statements and oversimplifications. The sections of The Meditations where Aurelius expounds upon a maxim for a few paragraphs were pleasant enough, but the later sections heavy on one-liners were a tough slog and the themes repetitive when read in a long slog.

I have not read enough of the other Stoics' primary works to have any opinion of Aurelius' place among them.
posted by benzenedream at 4:35 PM on July 24, 2009

I like Metafilter because we have people here who can defensibly compare Marcus Aurelius to Cary Tennis.
posted by everichon at 4:49 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Can anyone recommend a particularly good, currently printed and obtainable edition of the Meditations? The canonical translation seems to be the one by Long — is this the best one available currently?

I've found with some other ancient works (Thucydides) that having an edition with lots of explanatory footnotes/marginalia makes reading them a lot more enjoyable. I gather that editions like that are anathema to some scholars, but I find them a lot easier to get through as simply an interested amateur.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:28 PM on July 24, 2009

Kadin2048: not printed, as such, but if you haven't already found it you might find the Perseus Project interesting.

It'd be better if there was a way of switching quickly between annotated / non-annotated views, or inlining the annotations, but it's not too bad as-is. It's v-e-r-y slow for me at the moment so I can't see if Meditations specifically is in there, but there's plenty of Greek / Roman goodness to be found.
posted by Pinback at 7:03 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I focus on the fact that the Mediations were more or less letters Aurelius wrote to himself, which absolves them (to me) of Chicken Soup-ness.

I picture him, sitting in a drippy tent, dwelling on how everything sucks but he has to get through it all somehow, writing away with a scratchy pen.

Of course, I am inclined to be on his side, since a chance copy of the Meditations got me through a nasty patch in college, particularly Book Four and 'The laws of collective expediency required this to happen' which apparently is not the preferred translation, but has the merit of being more concise than some of the others I've seen.
posted by winna at 9:21 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

and then Book 2 starts: Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.

The archaic "thyselves" and so on that you reference imply that the translation you encountered wasn't the (highly recommended, by little old me at any rate) relatively recent Gregory Hays translation. It's fantastic, and I believe it does so much to preserve (my admittedly poor and likely idiosyncratic reading of) the substance of the original while presenting it in a style that I can't help but hope is closer to what a military campaign-bound emperor would likely employ whilst writing in the aforementioned drippy tent.

That said, thanks for the response. I second winna on the "he-wrote-it-for-himself-as-spiritual-exercises-and-not-for-the-Roman-equivalent-of-Oprah's-book-club" point (apologies in advance if I put words in winna's mouth), and I just want to restate my recommendation of the Gregory Hays' translation for folks like Kadin2048. It's contemporary in a way that doesn't sacrifice authenticity. I'm glad, in a way, to see that objections lodged thus far seem to have more to do with form (e.g., aphorism or maxim) than substance (e.g., Stoic logic, physic, and ethic), and I'm grateful there's a forum wherein we can talk about this in a thoughtful way. For those interested, here's the obligatory Amazon link to the Hays' translation for which I insist on shilling: here. I'm sure there's used paperback copies for something like a buck or two.

Skwt's take on Book 1 is spot-on, our differences w/r/t the ensuing books aside. I've actually teared up a time or two upon reading Hays' translation of what amounts to Marcus' personal and familial and political and philosophical shout-outs in said Book. So human. So real. So good.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:14 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

That looks like exactly the sort of edition I'm looking for. Amazon'ed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:37 PM on July 24, 2009

A preview of the Hays translation is also available at Google books, looks interesting.

Joe: What other translations of the early Stoics would you recommend?
posted by benzenedream at 11:51 PM on July 24, 2009

I have to say: the Mary Beard article is a little ridiculous, mostly because she tries to speak to too many people at one time. Fine, yes, popularized accounts of Marcus Aurelius and these modern 'hybrid' pseudo-scholarly texts are going to simplify and often will rely entirely too heavily on uncertain biographical connections and wild inferences about historical details that have no justification in the evidence. And it's also clear that, as a text which is somewhat popular to begin with, the Meditations will be widely perceived as a book by an emperor more than anything else.

But the Meditations means a lot to me both philosophically and personally, and I have to protest to Ms. Beard that I would feel the same about it if it were written by a slave like Epictetus. Heck, I don't even care if it was written by a besotted monk in the back of an Irish monastery in 1100; it's still a premier example of stoicism with a particularly Platonic moral bent, and a very thoughtful development of the earlier ideas that stoicism had embodied.

Mary Beard here makes the mistake that so many ‘experts’ on old texts make: she presumes that she knows the subject better than the author and that she could easily do better. I beg to differ; I'd like to see her try, I really would, because Stoicism is a noble and worthy teaching no matter its truth or falsity and well worth the exploration.

Oops; I forgot that we moderns are supposed to assume that everything anybody thought in the past is bullshit and proceed from there.
posted by koeselitz at 12:07 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding joe lisboa's recommendation for the Hays translation. Definitely the best one to get.
posted by Locative at 1:37 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

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