This will be a series of blog posts, time permitting, in which I examine each chapter of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”, as translated by Gregory Hays, Meric Casaubon, and George Long. I will use Hays’ translation mainly, as I find it the most approachable.
The posts will be personal and most likely wandering, like Aurelius’ writings.
I’m embarking on this exercise to better understand Stoicism, which I find fascinating, and to better understand myself in the context of this ancient philosophy. To any readers of these posts who have not read the Meditations: I recommend Hays’ translation, but also a book titled “A Guide to the Good Life” by William B. Irvine. Irvine lays out an approachable foundation of modern Stoicism without preaching, and I found the book both easy to follow and enlightening.
Without further ado, the first section of the first chapter.
1:1. MY GRANDFATHER VERUS
Character and self-control.
I always enjoy when the first sentence of a work reflects the body of the work in its entirety. It’s hard to ascribe foreshadowing to a journal – Marcus himself at this point would not have known that this would be the main topic of his Magnum Opus. Yet here it is: Character and self-control.
I found it interesting to compare here the different translations. I find that in this primary section, myriad meanings surface:
|Gregory HAys (2002)||1:1. MY GRANDFATHER VERUS
Character and self-control.
|George Long (1862)||FROM my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.|
|Meric Casaubon (2008)||1. Of my grandfather Verus I have learned to be gentle and meek, and to refrain from all anger and passion.|
|maxwell staniforth (1964)||1. Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt how to know from my grandfather Verus.|
I gravitate toward Hays’ for a variety of reasons. His is concise, almost terse. The adjectives he chooses are generally considered attributes of strength (contrast the Casaubon translation, which almost seems the opposite). Someone who has character and self control is assertive.
Long’s translation falls short as well. Morals are subjective and often well intended but misguided. “Self Control” is a cleaner version of “government of my temper”.
I cannot read Greek, so attempting my own translation would be futile. I have to put my trust in one of the translators to be “the most correct”. I’ll attempt to insert references to other translations when they vary wildly in the future.
It’s somewhat ironic that I write this now, at 1:30am on a weeknight. If I had better self-control, I would have skipped on browsing Reddit and Imgur for hours earlier (and when Greta was wanting my attention as well! I’ve apologized since), written this article during that time, and been in bed by a normal hour.
My roommate Levi and I chatted about philosophy for three hours as well tonight, but I will save our arguments for more appropriate chapters of “Meditations”.
What is it to have character? Perhaps our best example comes from Calvin’s Father. Character is built through work, courage, and determination. A person who has character is someone who has been through trials and emerged stronger.
To imagine someone without character: they are ineffectual, lazy, awkward, not confident. If you ask them to work, or to motivate themselves they are unable to muster more than the minimum effort. I cannot say that I do not sometimes fit this description, yet by acknowledging a lack of character in those times, I am able to pull myself into action, and therefore into a fuller implementation of my self.
My friend Evan told me a story about his grandfather. He smoked and drank for many years, but on the day that Evan’s father was born, he put his last bottle of whiskey and pack of cigarettes on top of his dresser, and never touched them again.
We cannot verify this story but I believe it – there is a fulfillment that comes from simple acts of self-control. To delay gratitude, to spare some free time to share others’ burdens. Acts of self-sacrifice made for love. These are things that allow us to find self-actualization. People are addicted to a plethora of things. For example, I find it difficult to stop from visiting Reddit or Imgur when I’m bored.
When your basic needs are taken care of, you have no excuse to not search for self-actualization. Self control and character building take energy, inspiration, and practice. If you waste the time given to you to practice, you will find yourself unable to overcome the most minor of obstacles.