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.

6 thoughts on “Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: Editions and Translations

  1. Thanks for comparing the different translations, very helpful. What did you think of Farquharson’s translation compared to Hay’s? Would be interested in reading an update to your translations review.


  2. […] Note: The seed of this idea came about from four separate things that came into my life. The first was a therapist who told me that “It’s important that you cultivate your own personal mythology”, at the time I didn’t know what she meant and didn’t ask her to elucidate. The second was something I read in a book about Walt Disney, someone who knew him said “He had a sense of his own destiny”. The third was in reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and The Power of Myth. And the final thing was in reading The Obstacle is The Way, and of course, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. […]


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