Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: Editions and Translations

About five years ago I purchased a vintage edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius from a neat little bookstore in Seattle called Arundel Books. This copy was a reprint of the 1862 George Long translation (in case you missed the Wiki link, Aurelius wrote his meditations in Greek during 170-180 AD (eighteen-hundred-and-forty years ago).

Now where I’m confused is as to whether I purchased the other edition of Meditations that I currently own before or after my trip to Arundel Books. I think it may have been the latter as I likely wanted a copy I could dog-ear and fall asleep on. Truth be told, I can hardly recall opening the vintage edition except perhaps to read a passage here and there when I’ve picked up the book to move it – from desk to shelf – or new city, as has happened since my romance with Seattle (I still love you my dear Emerald City).

As a testament to my lack of intellectual copulation with the 1862 translation (and my own lack of scholastic familiarity with Greek Philosophical works), it wasn’t until this very evening (it’s 4:57 a.m. – it’s evening if I want it to be.) that I discovered that not only do I own two separate editions but that each is a distinctly different translation of the Stoic Philosopher’s Greek writings to himself (his meditations).

Now, this is the rare occasion when I re-read one of those long David-Foster-Wallacey-sentences I just wrote and think to myself: ‘G-ddamn I sound like an airhead‘ – but in this case, I mustn’t edit myself lest I lose the tangibility of such an exciting discovery. I feel like this guy (Loved this movie).

The reason I discovered this tonight was because I began digitally transcribing two (sublimely wonderful) passages from the Fourth Book [chapter], and in wanting to save myself time I looked up a digital copy, which led me to a copy of the Long translation from MIT. Being that I have been reading the dog-eared Penguin Classics version (Translated by a gentleman named Martin Hammond), I quickly realized the two passages varied significantly in their wording.

Here are the passages in question from Hammond’s 2006 translation: (Book Four, Chapter 3, and Book Four, Chapter 3, Section 4)

Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation that that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there that put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So, constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. The doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.

Finally, then, you must retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First, that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you will see change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement. 

And here are the SAME passages as translated by George Long in 1862

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest.

This then remains: Remember to retire into this little territory of thy own, and above all do not distract or strain thyself, but be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two. One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.

I honestly can’t say I’ve compared both enough to pass any sort of judgement beyond the fact that Long’s (the latter) translation reeks of antiquated language (which I’m not at all adverse to), but in doing some searches on the different editions of Meditations, I came across some interesting opinions on their merits, which led me to seek out the Gregory Hays edition from 2002.

Meditations Book Four, Chapter 3, and Book Four, Chapter 3, Section 4 from Gregory Hays, 2002

People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony. So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough to ward off all < . . . > and send you back ready to face what awaits you.

So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal. And among the things you turn to, these two:
i. That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within—from our own perceptions.
ii. That everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist. Think of how many changes you’ve already seen.
“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”

In doing some brief research into Hays’ translation, I found that he was ‘deliberately trying to move away from the rather “stodgy” feel of some earlier translations, which he thought made Marcus sound too much like a sage.’

In his own words:

“I think different translations reflect different aspects of the original, like looking at a sculpture from various angles (you can’t see all sides at the same time). I was deliberately trying to move away from the rather stodgy feel of some earlier translations, which I think make Marcus sound too much like a sage. I wanted to reflect the fact that this is a text compiled for his own use, not with any expectation of other readers. He’s writing memorandum for himself, not handing down wisdom-with-a-capital-W.”

Hays also states that:

“Actually the Vatican is quite generous about allowing scholarly access. But you’re right that with the Meditations I wasn’t working directly from original manuscripts. I used several modern editions of the Greek text, of which the most recent is by the German scholar Joachim Dalfen. There’s an old but still very helpful commentary on the Greek text by A.S.L. Farquharson. I also consulted other translations for specific passages. There are a number of cases where the text has become confused in the process of copying and different scholars and translators have reconstructed the original in different (sometimes very different) ways.”

Personally, my initial reaction is that while Hays accomplishes the feat of making the writings of Marcus Aurelius approachable and digestible – the reader also misses something in the brevity and simplicity of his translation; however, I’m buying a copy of Hays’ edition because I will admit that it is in a sense much more digestible, and I wish to study the various editions – as this is without a doubt a book that I have a sincere love affair with.

I’m particularly excited to get my hands on the A.S.L. Farquharson edition (Published 1944) as he is said to have spent a lifetime on it, as well as the Maxwell Staniforth edition, (Published 1964) as a review I read mentioned his eloquent yet modern writing style.

Eventually I hope to own and become familiar with each, and I imagine the stoic philosophers would approve of my journey to find personal meaning in the various translations. And while I don’t expect I will ever learn Greek, I like the idea that I might one day commit myself to the creation of my own edition using the previous translations as Gregory Hays has done.

Perhaps a project for my retirement. Perhaps in three years. Who knows. (Starting a collection of the editions) But for now, I am going to ruminate on the two passages I have published within this entry and I hope to find meaning that I wouldn’t have found without the ‘discovery’ of the various editions.

Coincidentally enough, while I always had a sense of connection to this book, it’s become much deeper as I’ve begun producing my own ‘meditations’ and learning more about my spiritual-self. I look forward to writing more as I become more well-versed on the material. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is definitely a topic I expect I’ll be enjoying and writing on for a long time to come.

Note: If anyone has any thoughts on their favorite edition, or any recommendations for me in reading them, please leave a comment.

Meditations: Session Three

I took less than a page of notes in my notebook after the third session in my meditations practice.

I suspect this could be a result of the fact that I didn’t set a clear enough intention going into this session. I was also a bit clouded by frustration and expectation; however, I got exactly what I needed through this practice – as has thus far been true (and as I think is generally true with both meditation and yoga, when practiced with proper presence).

I should note that I am not overly concerned with the volume of writing I produce here as I do this practice for the inestimable benefit of the personal meaning I find.

I plan on revisiting these writings for a long time and I think there’s likely a large benefit to doing so.

Perhaps in borrowing the title of Meditations I subconsciously intended for the writings I produce in my own meditations to be revisited by myself much as I often revisit the meditations of Marcus Aurelius (I own two copies, one mid-century hardcover and one modern paperback.)

Note: Everything within bold text (section headlines included) or parenthesis (except for the squiggly kind) and brackets was added at the time of this publication to organize / clarify and or add afterthought to the notes at the time of publishing.

Inner Peace (in Truth)

  • That Space in the moment – the true / genuine inner peace you get after you have a big life realization [What a peaceful feeling. Definitely one I hope to recreate in revisiting these writings – and something I hope I can internalize through their study].

Patience (in Yourself)

  • Patience is more about patience with yourself than with life. (It’s okay to accept that something was a certain way up until now and that you’ve now arrived at the right time for the desired change to happen in your life – you’re now ready to outgrow it.) You mature on your own time.

Personal Power (in your Humanity)

  • What more proof of your existence (and personal power) do you “want” expect of life than the fact you are on the planet earth in a domicile. You’re (a member of) the most advanced species ever.
  • YOU’VE GOT WHAT IT TAKES. (Footnote 1)

Gratitude (For Your Life)

  • People would literally kill to have your life (i.e., Syrian refugees or North Korean prisoners). Don’t waste it [because someone else would kill for it].

Trust (In the Universe – in Yourself)

  • You’re in the safety of your 29th year / 30’s. [Trust in the universe – don’t obsess with death.]

Footnote 1: When I wrote this [“You’ve got what it takes”] I thought of the following quote from Steve Jobs (specifically the bolded text, which I added for emphasis): “When you grow up you, tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Meditations: Session Two

Continuing my Meditations Series, tonight I’m transcribing my handwritten notes from Session Two. (Technically, the third session, as my first session was recorded in the entry Transcendental Realizations.)

I should state that, as in each of my meditation sessions, the notes taken after meditating were a direct result of the intentions that I consciously decided prior to meditating. To emulate the practice I use in my meditation sessions, read: A Cocktail for The Soul.

Note: Everything within bold text (section headlines included) or parenthesis (except for the squiggly kind) and brackets was added at the time of this publication to organize / clarify and or add afterthought to the notes at the time of publishing.

Hacking The Worth: Mastering feelings and motivation

  • Self-esteem rooted in the past can hold us back. Should be rooted in the future w goals we can “feel”.
  • We have to feel worthy of feeling good / how / we want to feel.
  • We have to believe in the things we want to feel.
  • Just as we need to have love for someone to feel love for them we need to have exciting goals to feel excited about them. We cannot will ourselves to authentically feel something about a thing that is not there. In this way how can we have a good day when we don’t first believe it is / or (and?) have designed it to be.
  • Do feelings come before or after (strike-through verbatim from notepad) Are subjective feelings rooted in belief or perception? They must be preconceived ideas for us to perceive them (The root feeling / trigger must have been preconceived at some earlier point in time. i.e., our base concept of fear and love.) Prime the pump (underline verbatim). Influence both the tangible {circumstances} and the intangible {beliefs} factors that determine the desired experience / feelings we want.
  • Feelings predetermine experience.
  • Can we then effectively motivate ourselves and design life based on desired emotional states? [Kismet / bashert / providence / spiritual serendipity: I am now reading the book: The Desire Map, which is precisely about this process, hmm..]
  • Why aren’t we naturally wired like this [to be motivated by our core desired feelings]. What is our default mode of motivation? {pain/pleasure <- avoid/gain?}
  • Hack the “worth” (.) it’s about feeling worthy of our (desired) emotions / feelings.
  • How can we use this (Hacking the worth) [Perhaps we do this when we consciously step into the peaceful awareness of experiencing our thoughts as an almost external facet of reality rather than the dominating force of our inner reality – and from here we can ‘hack the worth’) to acquire emotional mastery over powerful negative feelings?
  • How do you combat the fear of procrastination / inaction? {motivation?} [Need to “hack the worth” and edit our stories: see: thisthis, and this.]
  • If we want change we have to untie our identity to past / present circumstances (reconcile who we are and what we are capable of in a separate/independent context from our present circumstance and past experience) and not just want change but be truly ready for it and prepared to accept it into our life.

Stepping into Stillness: Peaceful Awareness (Freedom from Thought) and Conscious Examination (Objective / Internal Perception)

  • When the mind wanders observe and question why it has wandered to a thought / idea / daydream. What is the underlying understanding or belief our subconscious is ideating {most people don’t even know why they think what they (the things and thoughts they) think} [?].
  • Our mind is often creating thoughts to reconcile subconscious feelings / justify feelings we have. We end up being a robot to these thoughts and basing our external reality on them instead of questioning why [said] thoughts are popping into our head and why we are experiencing [said] feelings. {gym guy w weights} (Footnote 1).
  • Could these wanderings be potential concepts, stories, or messages the subconscious is using the conscious mind to communicate [?].
  • Does the conscious mind just react.? Is it an imperfect vehicle because we aren’t self-aware and introspective enough of our own conscious thoughts / cognition [?].
  • In a way most all of us are at the mercy of our thoughts until we step put of them and into stillness / inner reality where we begin to experience our thoughts as a more external happening of reality (Footnote 2).
  • Is this (experiencing our thoughts as a ‘happening’ much like we experience the external world as ‘a happening’) what self-awareness is? {The experience of the self from a more internal perception.} Habitual active introspection / examination / higher consciousness evaluation (evaluation of our thoughts and feelings from a ‘higher level of consciousness’).
  • It feels like a more powerful way of being {peaceful awareness}. No longer lost in your (my) thoughts (Or perhaps the concept is expressed better simply as: ‘No longer lost in thought.’)
  • All opinions are judgements in the [this] sense we need to examine what feelings are judgements too.
  • To listen without judging means to listen with conscious love and appreciation.
  • Every interaction is an opportunity to learn. Every emotion is too [as well].
  • Unbiased examination / objective examination of our thoughts / feelings / emotions will help us to understand what is driving them (Identification of the [authentic/soul based] inner feelings, desires, fears, and biases behind our thoughts) and who we really are {the soul}.

Footnote 1: An positive experience where I examined my thoughts happened at the gym recently. A guy had left about a half-dozen sets of dumbbells on the floor near to where I was working out. I automatically (felt as if I) wanted to punch him and felt an overpowering sense of loathing for this stranger. It was so strong that knew I had to take a deep breath and a mental step back and consciously examine my thoughts. From this perspective I realized that there have been plenty of times where I have likely done things that have caused other people to loathe me – and the truth was, I didn’t know this guy – but he likely wasn’t trying to infuriate me, and being emotionally crippled by his actions was silly.

Footnote 2: This concept of experiencing our thoughts as a more external happening of reality is surely influenced by the following quote (From this Alan Watts audio I have been listening to): “And soon you will find that the so-called ‘outside world’ and the so-called ‘inside world’ come together – they are ‘a happening’. Your thoughts are ‘a happening’ just like the sounds going on outside and everything is simply a happening and all you’re doing is watching.”]

Poetry: Perfume Made Sweet

Sweet Perfume in the air and it’s dinner time,
I’m walking home by the cafe.
It’s humming quietly in this little coastal town,
And I tell myself I’m okay.

Because the perfume in the air it’s thick and sickening,
The feeling of scented hair I’ve been lost in,
Loveless tresses and dresses I should have never known,
They haunt me now as I pass under a street lamp’s pale glow.

It’s like a Monet in this moment,
All the soft colors blending together from afar.
But the muted hues are covering something.

Something deeper, darker, and different altogether.

They just see a boy walking,
And they think he has it all together.

A casual smile tells me this.
And for once, post-impressionism becomes clear.

It’s the sharpness of the perfume,
Transmuted into softness.
And in this subtle mask,
We peer into the artist’s veneer.

He takes us where he cannot go.
Because in a painting as in a poem,
There is no longer any fear.

A Cafe Terrace at Night, Vincent  van Gogh
A Cafe Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh

On my Poem: As Above, So Below

My poem As Above, So Below was originally inspired by the plight of the North Korean people – specifically the 150,000 to 200,000 estimated denizens of the regime’s torturous gulags.

In my own reflecting on this dreadful and strikingly overlooked fragment of the modern world, as well as in my reflections on the human rights crimes in other nations, such as Sudan and Syria, I can’t help but be overcome by feelings of confusion and bewilderment. How can individuals – from the despotic leaders and their military generals, down to the lowest soldiers and guards – how can they perpetrate unspeakable horrors and heinous crimes against their fellow human beings – including women and children? [We’re talking nightmarish shit – a full Khmer Rouge redux].

I’d like to think that these thoughts are the result of my being a rational human being and not simply the product of childlike naivete, or the embodiment of First World pontificating, and I find it rather sad that I would even question such a thing, but the inescapable truth is that there is something that vexes me about the inhumanity of it all: there is just something seriously fucked up and dark about the depths of human nature and the soulless depravity of its most ghastly and abhorrent capabilities.

And in my ruminations on this ugliness, the utter loathsomeness of it, I began questioning why this is and how it came to be. Sure – I could turn to books for answers, such as this and this, but it would seem that an answer should be more simple than the undercurrents of social psychology and the underpinnings of moral philosophy. So, in positing my own answers to this from an invariably egocentric and ethnocentric perspective, I began thinking that perhaps modern atrocities are a resultant product of modern societal shortcomings – i.e., there is no proverbial village to maintain the accountability of moral and social responsibility to one another. Venturing down this rabbit hole further, I reviewed this hypothesis in the context of various Pre-industrial stages of society in reverse chronological order from Agrarian, to Pastoral, to Hunter-Gatherer culture. The result of this existential inquiry I turned into the poem As Above, So Below.

A couple things that may shed more light on the 4th and 6th stanzas of the poem can be read here (Warning: contains a poem with potentially graphic subject matter relating to culturally driven female genital mutilation, which has occurred for centuries) and here (safe for kids) respectively.

Another note I would like to add about my own perspective on what causes human divide is a brief anecdote about a video I watched on youtube where three Sikh women discuss the importance of beards on their men. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but feel that it is precisely this line of thinking (‘We are separate, we are different’) that keeps us separate from one another – and thus capable of judging in such a disparaging regard.

Bless the atheist for doing what is morally sound not based in his belief in a culturally rooted G-d, nor in his fear of hell, but in his own personal code of integrity.

However, we must always remember the words of Eric Hoffer: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

[“a devil” in this case being the group that the leadership of the mass movement derides the people into hating – or the person or group the individual hates as a result of widespread cultural influences.]

Poetry: As Above, So Below

I used to think the man in the modern city was in trouble.
For he had no ties to those he buried in ash and rubble.

And I thought of the man in the village,
but he too seemed lost.
For in exchange for grains and property,
Hapless slaves paid the cost.

So I looked to the tribes,
Asleep in peace underneath starry skies.

But even the sweetest of grandmothers,
Mutilated innocent teenage brides.

Then I looked to hunter-gatherers – egalitarian and free,
Hoping for comfort,
in what I would see.

But it was too late,
Their humanity was paid for and bought –
As they built the first temple,
And buried their dead beneath the rocks.


Edit: 4/25/14 – I just published a short follow up detailing the impetus and the meaning behind this poem.