60 in 60: #2 – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

by Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180)

Memorable Line
“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit. So, too, the drooping head of a cornstalk, the wrinkling skin when a lion scowls, the drip of foam from a boar’s jaws, and many more such sights, are far from beautiful if looked at by themselves; yet as the consequences of some other process of Nature, they make their own contribution to its charm and attractiveness.”

The Skinny
Philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius attempts to make sense of the universe, and a good soul’s place in it, through a series of short observations, directives, suggestions, and reveries.

Relevance? Argument?
Dipping into this book would have been a much better way to read it than straight through. I see now that one drawback of 60 in 60 will be having to read some titles in a way in which they were never meant to be read. That said, I found many of Aurelius’ observations original, and at times profound. Sometimes his specific observations are dated by references obscure to the modern reader–“Let no one, not even yourself, ever hear you abusing court life again”–but it is in the concrete that I found him most compelling. For example, as when describing “the times of Vespasian”: “Men and women busy marrying, bringing up children, sickening, dying, fighting, feasting, chaffering, farming, flattering, bragging, envying, scheming, calling down curses, grumbling at fate, loving, hoarding, coveting thrones and dignitaries. Of all that life, not a trace survives today.” A favorite line, even though it has no philosophical relevance: “as the sore-eyed recur to their egg-and-sponge lotion.”

Perhaps less effective, given my particular sense of humor, are lines like “Is your cucumber bitter? Throw it away.” Too much and too little here in a way, and indeed I can imagine Aurelius sitting and scribbling these down or dictating them in idle moments. This image made me wonder what did not make the book. (“Mayonnaise should never be eaten with peanut butter.” “If I hide my thumb in the palm of a clenched fist it looks as if I am thumbless.” “Knuckles are surly beasts.”)

Reading Aurelius in one night makes the repetition like a long hike where what seemed new an hour ago is now just another deer. And yet you’re outdoors and the hike is invigorating so it seems churlish to complain about the jading of your own senses. Aurelius includes numerous observations about the connectivity between people, the connectivity between people and the spiritual (either Nature or the Gods). These can either become increasingly invisible to the reader or be internalized as the kind of repetition that gains power in the telling.

Still, if the way you say something is as important as what you say then some of this exists on an exalted level and some on the level of fortune cookie or bumpersticker material: “Soon you will have forgotten the world, and the world will have forgotten you.” Others, like “time is a river,” are simultaneously now cliche and made new because the mind sparks with the thought that “this was new back then!” (Although later the “primal Cause” is also like a river.)

Penguin has decided with this series to give no context or introduction to the material beyond a general statement on the back cover and the birth/death dates of the author. This adds a sense of mystery that I like–of encountering the text without preconceptions. I loved being connected to the distant past, and of getting a sense of Aurelius through his own words. If parts of the book bored me or created a sense of indifference, other parts moved me deeply.

Marcus Aurelius at times had a writer’s eye for the specific details that exemplify a love for the world as it really is…

Questions for Readers>
Is there a book that had boring or trite elements and yet you don’t regret reading it, would read it again, recommend it to friends, etc? Especially a book you feel had a profound influence on you?

Next up, St. Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner…

22 comments on “60 in 60: #2 – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

  1. Larry says:

    I’ve always meant to read Marcus Aurelius’s works in full someday; only a passing quip here or there over the years. One of the last of the Stoics, if memory serves. I seem to recall him having things to say about the emerging Christian communities that would make for an interesting discussion these days…

    As for books that had trite/repetitive elements, I read one earlier this year: Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet. Here’s a snippet that you might appreciate:

    Who knows for what supreme powers, god or devils of the Truth in whose shadow we wander, I might not be a shiny fly that pauses for a moment before them? An easy conclusion? A commonplace? Philosophy without thought? Perhaps, but I did not think: I felt. It was carnal, direct, with a profound horror and […], that I made the comparison laughable. I was a fly when I compared myself to a fly. I felt myself to be a fly when I thought I felt it. And I felt myself to have a fly’s soul, I slept a fly’s sleep, I felt myself to be totally a fly. And the greatest horror is that at the same time I felt I was myself. Without wanting to, I raised my eyes toward the ceiling; a supreme ruler did not come down to smash me as I could have smashed that fly. Happily, when I lowered my eyes, the fly, without making any noise I could hear, had disappeared. The involuntary office was once again devoid of philosophy.

    The entire book is like that. Pessoa jotting down his thoughts over time and they’re all published in one volume. No way I could read that all at once; it was just too much.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the St. Augustine excerpt, as I’ve read both the entire Confessions and Civita Dei.

  2. Bill Ectric says:

    The Book of Ecclesiastes in the old Testament. Not from a religious angle, in fact, Ecclesiasts is almost an anomili in the Bible for being down to earth and real, as opposed to talking donkeys and magical fish. The writer speaks comfortably of a god or creator, giving me some leeway to accept it as an untapped part of my brain, the higher power telling me to do the right thing, not some wrathful giant whitebeard.

  3. Bill Ectric says:

    Although it might have a white beard, we don’t have the data to rule that out.

  4. Celsius1414 says:

    How funny — when I was a kid, I adored peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. Nowadays, I couldn’t tolerate it. :)

  5. Really?! And why did it taste good?

  6. Celsius1414 says:

    Got me. I’m guessing it was the combo of crunchy PB and smooth mayo tastes. Or maybe just the festival of saturated fat. :) I rarely eat mayo nowadays.

  7. I’ll pay you $20 to eat some and report back. (I think Marcus A is turning over in his grave right about now.)

  8. Celsius1414 says:

    One of those sandwiches, and *I* might well be turning in my grave soon. ;)

  9. Grant Stone says:

    So is this book the equivalent of Marcus Aurelius’ collected Twitter feed?

  10. jeff vandermeer says:

    yes, you could say that o wise stone

  11. Larry says:

    Maybe you could Twitter quote for each of the remaining days?

  12. Transfiguring Roar says:

    LOL @ celsius1414 and Jeff.

    I’m young and healthy and I wouldn’t try that combination of peanut butter and mayo!

  13. Mary C says:

    Mmmmm. Peanut butter. I used to eat it with almost anything, including mayo. Try your peanut butter and mayo with any of the following, singular or in combination — lettus, pickles, chedder cheese, bacon, bananas. Now it has to be fresh ground peanut butter on low-carb wheat with Hellmanm’s light.

  14. Bill Ectric says:

    “For to combine the yokes of eggs with vinegar and spices, one offers a pleasing balm to the senses.
    And, yeah, the oily butter of the almond and goober thoust may eat.

    “But, woe unto them who mix the two, for it is witchery and an abomination.”

    I GoomDrakus 7:12, 13

  15. Spencer Thompson says:

    You’re going to get onto it later in the series, but Montaignes essays sound somewhat similar in content to this book. A lot of the pearls of wisdom in the essays are perhaps laboured, repetitive, and “trite”, such as the extended passage on what Montaigne likes to eat in “on experience”, but the inherent sweetness of the guy comes through. It left me feeling as though someone from another age had offered himself up to me, and I would definitely recommend dipping into them. It also had a very modern sound to it, but I wonder how much of that was the translation.
    Slightly spuriously, another book that I found had “boring” passages but that had a profound effect on me was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Yet it is so outrageous and packed full of ideas I can’t wait to read it again and make friends read it and his other work. Perhaps the sheer length means there was enough in it to amaze me, with some room left over for boredom. Who knows?!

  16. Julie Leonard says:

    Yes, peanut butter and mayonnaise. The mayo helps the PB slide down. Lettuce is good in the sandwich, too. Mom always made it with Miracle Whip, which is sweeter than mayo. My husband leaves the kitchen when I start to assemble one.

    I wonder if it’s a regional thing. Mom’s from Minnesota.

  17. rushmc says:

    Everyone knows a peanut butter-and-mayonnaise sandwich must have dill pickle slices on it!

  18. Celsius1414 says:

    @Julie — my grandfather was from North Dakota and had family in Minnesota and Canada, so maybe that’s where it’s from. If we had any mayo in the house, I might actually be brave enough to try it again, but alas (or thankfully, depending on how you look at it) there is none.

    @Jeff — I was trying to remember why Marcus Aurelius’s name kept tickling my memory after your post, then it came to me that I’d heard it whilst watching Silence of the Lambs recently:

    “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?”

  19. I suppose Ulysses is quite a good example of a book that might appear ‘boring’ at times, but it also absolutely one of the most insane, hilarious and life changing books out there!

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