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)
“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.”
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.
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…