Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations'

My goal is to tell you why Meditations is worth your time, and I'm struggling to do so without quoting half the book. There's so much meat, so much lean, practical, plausible advice in this book that any attempt to summarize it succeeds only in stripping the words' power and reducing them to bland truisms.

So instead I'm going to write a little bit about how I use this book in my own life. First you have to know that, like human beings in general, I am lazy, self-involved, hypocritical, cruel, and undisciplined. Add to this the fact that my culture has conditioned me for over a quarter-century to worship images, money, and technology, and to outsource the maintenance of my own life to certified tools and experts, and you can see why I am in serious need of some help with self-help.

Example: I do not like to get up in the morning. Even though it makes me feel shitty and drugged for the rest of the day, I will remain in bed, lolling in and out of consciousness, for hours. Even though I know it will hurt me, even if I'm not even enjoying lying there, apathy and dread of the untold labors to come (walking to the kitchen; cleaning the goddamn dishes my roommate left in sink; waiting for the water to boil, and then waiting more for the coffee to steep) will mire me in the sheets, and before I know it the sun is post meridian, and finally sluggish self-loathing overpowers my fear and laziness and I'll stumble blearily out of bed. Evidently Marcus was familiar with this kind of sloth, for Book IV begins, "Early in the morning, when you are reluctant in your laziness to get up, let this thought be at hand: 'I am rising to do the work of a human being.'" So now there is suspended above my bed a sign that says "I am rising to do the work of a human being." When it comes to practical advice, I'm pretty literal.

Which is okay, because Marcus is literal and practical, too. Book II begins with "Begin each day by saying to yourself: Today I am going to encounter people who are ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, and hostile. People have these characteristic because they do not understand what is good and what is bad.'" And what phrase do you think I've taped to my bathroom mirror, in big, bold letters that can be deciphered even through the puffy cataracts of morning-eyes? This book is about how to live well as a human being. That's it. There's very little partisan bullshit, like which religion is true, or how so-and-so's theory of such-and-such is wrong. The Meditations, which Marcus wrote to himself in private, is a how-to guide for human living.

For comparison, consider the Book of Proverbs, which is full of stuff like "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" and "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil." The Meditations is striking for its lack of resentment. Marcus doesn't seem to much care about what other people do or don't do; he is solely interested in the business of living. It's hard to imagine reading in a Christian text anything remotely similar to, "Never place blame upon the gods, for they do not err, either willingly or unwillingly. Nor should you blame other people, for they do not err willingly. Therefore, blame no one." (12.12) Nor can I easily suppose of a contemporary self-help book, with their emphasis on YOU, placing this kind of radical responsibility on the reader. And I guess that the way Marcus obeys his own advice in writing the Meditations, the way he insists on self-responsibility without appealing to blame, speaks to me. It makes me think that this book is actually, seriously concerned with the practical question of how to live well, and not another performance that's trying to get my money or allegiance or admiration or mouse-click.

And what does living well consist of? I can't justly summarize what Marcus has to say on this matter, but he takes a stab at it: "The salvation of human life is in this: seeing what each thing is in its entirety, both in its material and its cause; also in performing just actions and speaking the truth with one's entire soul. What is left but to enjoy the benefits of such a life, joining one good action to another without leaving the smallest interval between them?" (12:29) Suffice to say that thoughtfully cultivating what is best in yourself--compassion, awareness, justice, humility--leads to the best human life. Marcus is a pragmatist: he is concerned with how to do the work that gets the job done. And I, with my insatiable ego and my insurmountable appetite, tape his quotations to the walls around me, and use them as a psychic prosthesis, dragging myself toward a better person.

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