Book Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - Translated by Robin Waterfield
This entry was posted on June 24, 2021.
Everything is transient; everything quickly becomes the stuff of stories, and then is quickly buried by complete oblivion. I'm talking here about men who shone, in one way or another, with wonderful brilliance; everyone else sooner breathes his last than he is 'out of sight and out of mind' ~Marcus Aurelius
I have been intrigued by this philosophy over the course of the past year since its precepts have been touted as a good way to cope with everything life has thrown at us during the pandemic. I actually started the year reading Ryan Holiday’s take on Meditations. His popular book, The Daily Stoic, breaks down valuable Stoic lessons into daily affirmations and journal prompts. While Holiday’s book has been insightful and interesting, it felt like there were pieces missing. I felt like someone who had seen a movie sequel without ever having seen the first movie – someone who leaves the theatre a bit confused and with a lot of questions. Reading Robin Waterfield’s translation of Meditations: The Annotated Edition has helped clear up some of those questions and bridge that gap.
This renewed interest in Stoicism comes as no surprise. People are looking for ways to deal with the repeated onslaught of bad news. Stoicism, with its practiced detachment from “bad” and “good” judgements, opinions, and gossip, can be helpful to many people – myself included – at a time when news channels and social media are abuzz with frightening headlines and misinformation. How do we process all of this? How do we deal with unpleasant feelings and emotions? How do we deal with other people's challenging behaviours? In this translation, Waterfield has purposely stayed away from the modern takes on Stoicism so that he can "understand Marcus on his own terms and in his own day" (p.x). This ancient text offers some advice that has managed to stand the test of time (much to Marcus Aurelius's chagrin - for he eschewed fame), but which translation should one read?
Of all the possible translations to read of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, I was happy to read Waterfield’s. He’s a tremendous writer. I thoroughly enjoyed his Greek magnum opus, Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens, so I was looking forward to his translation of this text. He did not disappoint. The purpose of this new translation was 'to deepen anyone's understanding of Marcus' work'. I’ve been put off of books such as this before due to their translator writing solely for an audience that is intimately familiar with the material and not leaving any space for a reader who is picking up a classic for the first time. As someone relatively new to Stoicism, Waterfield presents this text in a straightforward way that is easy to grasp, yet, without dumbing things down. This book is intended for new adherents because this is considered a 'canon' text for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of Stoicism.
Waterfield's introduction offers great insights into the premise of the book, Marcus Aurelius’ background, life and times, his rule, and why he wrote these ideas down in the first place. He also touches on the recent resurgence of Stoicism and how Aurelius’ writing has been disseminated to the general public through popular books (such as Holiday's). The book has four overarching themes: anger management, death, the paltriness of fame, and Aurelius's treatment of others, but it always comes back to the fundamental tenet of Stoicism: "The only thing that is truly good is virtue, and the only thing that is truly bad is vice" (p.29)
Every page has footnotes that explain what each specific point means. Some notes discuss the difficulties in translating from Greek to English, some are Waterfield’s own insights, and finally, he provides explanations of Roman culture and history that are pertinent to understanding that particular passage. I appreciated his simple explanation of terms such as oikeioi (belonging in common to one another, from the same household), the different (and at times tricky) meanings of psykhē (soul, mind, temperament), and what pneuma (spirit) meant to the Stoics. In short, Waterfield has made reading along with Aurelius painless.
He has also given readers more familiar with this text his translation notes where he outlines the challenges he encountered translating, and any changes he made to prior translations (Waterfield translated predominantly from the 1987 second edition of the Teubner text of J. Delfen., Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: Ad Se Ipsum Libri XII).
For those of us who want to pursue this topic further, Waterfield has provided a brief, but thorough "Recommended Readings" section that is accessible to newcomers who aren't proficient in ancient Greek or Latin. There is also a convenient “Who’s who” at the back entitled: “The People and Gods of Meditations”. It lists everyone Marcus Aurelius mentions in the book along with a brief explanation of their importance.
Lastly, I enjoyed Waterfield’s writing style. The material can be good, but if the writing is dry and dull I find I take in little of the lesson. Waterfield does not suffer from this curse - he's a great writer. He explains things in a concise, yet conversational tone that is neither condescending nor tries too hard to be hip and cool. Reading this was seamless and helped some of the snippets that I had read earlier from The Daily Stoic finally click in my head.
If you are looking to read Meditations, and get an introductory understanding of Stoicism, Marcu Aurelius and his world, I would highly recommend Waterfield's translation of the book. Even scholars who are well versed in Stoicism would find Waterfield's translation offers something new to the field and is well worth consideration.
Interested in ancient Rome? Want to know more about great leaders like Marcus Aurelius?